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How the deal was done

(by Frank Millar, Irish Times)

People across these islands and throughout the world gasped in amazement last Monday when Northern Ireland's tribal chieftains, the Rev Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, finally sat down to make peace.

A prescient editorial in The Irish Times had alerted readers that a truly historic day lay in prospect, if not quite that originally planned by the British and Irish Governments. Forty-eight hours before we reported that Dr Paisley and his deputy Peter Robinson were engaged in the most spectacular gamble of their political lives. Against the odds they had resolved to bust the March 26 "deadline" set in law and apparent stone by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain. At the same time they thought to claim "ownership" of the political process by setting their own date for the commencement of power-sharing government with Sinn Féin.

The wait between expectation and realisation might have been counted in a small number of hours. Yet in what proved a huge gap, nothing could have prepared for the astonishing imagery that would be beamed across the globe promising something even more potent than the tearful celebration which greeted the Belfast Agreement on that famous Good Friday in 1998.

Not only did these veterans – many would say architects, perpetrators and perpetuators – of conflict meet. They performed with panache and evident confidence, their statements bearing the telling evidence of the peacemakers' craft – each displaying due appreciation of the others' needs and sensitivities. Moreover, both leaders managed to invoke God, without offence either given or taken, in promising a better future for all the children of the Troubles. It was, as Adams observed later, something quite magical.

Disbelief had gone into the media mix along with confusion in early morning reports suggesting that the unprecedented Adams/Paisley encounter would determine whether Secretary of State Peter Hain might still be forced to dissolve the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly. This was to miss the point that the fact of the meeting between the two leaders confirmed an already-done deal.

While naturally giving nothing away at the time, senior British sources subsequently confirmed they knew – courtesy of Adams' first cautious response to the DUP adventure – that it was "game-on" on Saturday morning. In Berlin for the EU birthday celebrations, however, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were monitoring developments and taking nothing for granted. For Blair, in particular, believing really only came with seeing the draft of Dr Paisley's proposed statement upon his return to Downing Street at around 10 o'clock on Sunday night.

If he slept better as a result, the same would not have been true for all the members of the DUP Executive who had on Saturday approved the resolution containing the firm commitment to form a power-sharing administration on May 8. True, the leadership carried the day with 90% backing. Delegates asking the question were told emphatically that there would be no return for another vote. This was decision-time. And leading doubters like MPs William McCrea and David Simpson – who party sources confirmed had joined fellow MPs Nigel Dodds and GregoryCampbell) in backing the new strategy – would certainly have known what must follow. Yet some delegates would undoubtedly have returned home anticipating another six-week period of "testing" Sinn Féin's bona-fides in respect of support for policing, the courts and the rule of law.

They were in for a rude awakening, for events moved, as they had to, with astonishing speed. And we would subsequently discover that the now-famous DUP/Sinn Féin Agreement was effectively concluded in the first direct negotiations between the two parties stretching from 6pm last Saturday until the midnight hour. Key party officials are said to have carried the exchanges for the most part on Sunday. However, there were more face to face meetings between some of the principals on Sunday evening as the agenda was set for the Paisley/Adams bilateral and joint public appearance the following morning. In addition, the two sides had to engage in a protracted discussion about the size and shape of the table at which Adams and Paisley would meet, who would sit where, and when the cameras would be admitted. These were absolutely crucial issues because, as everyone instinctively grasped, the imagery of Monday was going to be as important – and possibly more so – than any words spoken.

It was not, of course, the first time the two parties had met across a table. Each side had grilled the other in the so-called 'Preparation for Government Committee' of the previous "transitional" Assembly at Stormont. But this was something else – the DUP and Sinn Féin sitting down on their own, with no government ministers or officials in attendance, to hammer-out an agreed way forward.

Robinson led the DUP delegation in the negotiations, which took place through the weekend at Hain's Stormont Castle residence. He was accompanied by Dodds, Assembly Member Ian Paisley Jnr, and key officials Timothy Johnston and Richard Bullick. Sitting opposite them around the table were Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister-designate Martin McGuinness, MPs Gerry Kelly and Conor Murphy, and top aides Aidan McAteer and Leo Green.

There were no handshakes. A number of the participants contacted later declined to be drawn on their personal feelings, invariably describing the atmosphere as "business-like". Yet we know the chemistry was vital to this enterprise, and, given the end result, that it must have been considerably better than many might have imagined. One small indication of that came when illness forced Dodds to leave before the rest of his colleagues on Saturday night. This was not a diplomatic illness; the MP and his wife, Diane, both endured a nasty dose of food poisoning throughout the weekend. However, just in case there was any misunderstanding, Dodds went to the Sinn Féin room to assure them that "he was not walking out".

We also know something about the necessary chemistry given one key aspect to this meeting that has been little commented upon – namely the DUP's task in persuading Sinn Féin that it was for real about the alternative devolution date.

Yes, Adams had given a green light in his earlier contacts with the British Government. It was indeed "deal-on". But it could still have crashed, taking the process with it to the Assembly "dissolution" Hain always maintained would follow failure to meet the original deadline for the appointment of an Executive.

That power of decision had been effectively handed to Adams by Blair back on the Friday, after a final meeting of the week with the DUP leadership at which the prime minister accepted that Dr Paisley would not, after all, be meeting the March 26 deadline.

In fairness to Dr Paisley and Robinson, Blair's counter-strategy hardly took them by surprise. To the contrary, this was part of their gamble. For by that stage they had had to accept that, if they weren't going to comply with the March 26 deadline, then the prime minister was not going to grant the emergency legislation necessary to extend it into May.

Blair had told Robinson this in blunt terms during their first encounter of the week on the previous Wednesday, March 21 in the prime minister's Commons office. This was the moment at which Downing Street and the NIO finally accepted that Peter Robinson was deadly serious in his view that pushing ahead to meet the Monday deadline risked a damaging DUP split. Under no pressure from the British, Robinson volunteered that he had been by Dr Paisley's side for the best part of forty years. And the long-serving deputy made clear that if Dr Paisley wanted to meet the Monday deadline he would have his support. However Robinson warned Mr Blair equally bluntly that this would only be done "at a cost" to the party.

Until that point, Number 10 and the NIO had been entirely satisfied that "the Big Man" wanted and intended to take office and nominate ministers on the Monday. This assessment was also shared across all sections of the DUP. The disagreement came in the analysis of the party's disposition, and the weight Dr Paisley would ultimately attach to it.

The British were so confident of Dr Paisley that they were briefing fairly openly at one point against Dodds and Robinson. In one of a number of "role reversals", Dodds had become "the Jeffrey Donaldson of the peace process" – with the North Belfast MP playing Donaldson's original dissident to 'Dr Paisley's' David Trimble. And all sides recognised the particular irony in the developing frustration with Robinson. Back in 2003/4 – before the blossoming of the Blair/Paisley relationship that would prove so important – the British and Irish had entertained fond hopes that Robinson the "moderniser" might deliver Dr Paisley to an agreement. Now here he was restraining his leader, despite the overwhelming evidence of the election – and the NIO's leaked exit poll – that Dr Paisley had correctly read the mood of the people and won their trust in the election.

In no-nonsense mood, the British faced into the final week of the negotiations expectant that the octogenarian leader would assert his authority; that Robinson would in the end prioritise "the interests of the people of Northern Ireland over concerns about party management"; and that Dodds would "stay loyal" and probably accept a Ministry in the new Executive.

However, they saw things very differently in the doubting wing of the DUP (and it was always more 'doubting' than 'dissident'). No one at any point denied that the leader had the authority and capacity to deliver a clear majority in favour of going into government by the deadline. Nor did any deny that the Paisley imprimatur was still the one necessary to make an agreement that would stick. By the same token, as one senior source put it, time had marched on "and DUP politics is no longer just about Dr Paisley". The doubters also calculated that – unlike Blair – when it came down to it, the DUP leader would not forget the essential history.

This, as Robinson would later remind them, had seen successive British Governments "push" unionist leaders too far ahead of their people and parties. Robinson had long ago concluded that Adams considered the "process" indestructable – and that he was right. It was in that certain knowledge that Sinn Féin had defied the St Andrews timetable and deferred the required decision backing the PSNI by two months. So, Robinson argued upfront, the DUP likewise should be allowed to manage their party and ensure the ducks were "in a line" before committing.

Some NIO sources fancied Dr Paisley "somewhat crest-fallen" at the realisation that things would not proceed as planned on March 26. The contrary evidence, however, is that the leader weighed the internal debate and also concluded that delay was necessary. Hence that Paisley/Robinson strategy based on one other key conclusion: that delay would maximise DUP unity, so ensuring a much more stable and secure start to the new devolved administration come May.

At their final meeting in Downing Street on the Friday, Blair made no attempt to argue with that, telling the DUP that he really didn't care either way about the commencement date.

Hain, by contrast, was in a black mood, and clung to the Monday deadline. The developing Iranian crisis caused Blair to leave the room on two occasions. And on each occasion the Secretary of State reminded the DUP of the political cost to them if it was not met - in terms of water charges, the abolition of education by selection, and "accountability" reforms of the Belfast Agreement. Indeed, according to one DUP account, Hain maintained his position even on Saturday, telling the DUP they risked putting Sinn Féin in "the driving seat".

The DUP, of course, weren't listening, intent as they were on forging their own reality. And it would be disingenuous for anyone in the NIO to claim that Hain and Blair have always sung from the same hymn sheet. However, there is acceptance at the highest levels in Whitehall that Hain's conduct of the policy debate coupled with what one source describes as "his impatience with the impasse" – served an important function in a process that had grown "too indulgent". And, in terms of the end result, was their any significant difference between Hain's stance and Blair's more emollient message to the DUP on the need to directly engage with, and persuade, Sinn Féin?

At the last, in any event, Hain was able to laugh with everyone else. The Ulster Unionist Party's sole MP Lady Sylvia Hermon plainly didn't see the funny side, as she badly misjudged the mood in the Commons on Tuesday, protesting when Hain presented the emergency legislation overriding the deadline he had always said was immutable.

But there were prizes for everyone here (including, presumably, Lady Sylvia's leader, Sir Reg Empey). And there were bouquets, from the Conservative as well as the Labour benches, for Hain as well. Yes, DUP members could congratulate themselves on busting the deadline. However, many outsiders could also see that – in Blair's famous "big picture" terms – the deadline had also worked with the Paisley/Robinson strategy to finally end the DUP's conditionality about power-sharing.

Coupled with Monday's powerful imagery, and the serious preparations for government now under way, the outcome was arguably better than anything that would have resulted from a decision to force Monday's deadline in face of significant internal DUP opposition and reluctance. Dr Paisley's hand – like that of Robinson – has been immeasurably strengthened. So too, therefore, have the chances that this deal actually will work.

April 1, 2007

This article appeared in the March 31, 2007 edition of the Irish Times.