(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
Personal relationships between the North's two senior politicians, First Minister David Trimble and his deputy Seamus Mallon are now said to be at a new low following the collapse last week of a deal on North-South bodies and the distribution of Executive seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
According to reliable sources relations between the pair have become so bad that they only communicate through their respective secretaries and have to make appointments in order to meet to discuss issues. Their offices are only feet apart in the Stormont building yet, the sources say, neither feels free just to walk in to talk to the other.
Last Monday matters worsened considerably when, according to Unionist sources, a meeting about North-South bodies degenerated into swearing and a general loss of temper. Describing current relations between the men as "tense", the source went on: "David feels Seamus makes demands and sets deadlines without consultation".
The atmosphere between the Unionist leader and his SDLP partner is said to have been slowly deteriorating for weeks principally because of Trimble's insistence on actual IRA decommissioning before Sinn Fein is permitted to take up seats in the new NI Executive. "Its been pretty bad for a while and something has gone awry in their relationship", admitted the source.
SDLP sources meanwhile say that Mallon is increasingly frustrated at what he sees as Trimble's grandstanding over decommissioning. "Its raising questions about whether Trimble is at all serious about the Good Friday Agreement", said one SDLP source.
Although most political sources were this weekend attempting to play down the seriousness of last week's events there is real concern about the worsening Trimble-Mallon relationship. Their partnership is crucial to the success and survival of the Belfast Agreement and if it were to break down irreparably the consequences for the agreement could be serious.
This glitch in the agreement comes at an embarrassing moment. The two leaders are this weekend in the United States where it had been hoped they would be able to show a united face to the Americans and next Thursday David Trimble is scheduled to collect his share of the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo along with John Hume.
The events of last week are to say the least confusing with each side putting out a different version of what is supposed to have happened.
Unionists claim that they negotiated a deal with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin two weeks ago for six cross-Border bodies and ten departmental portfolios in the new Executive, a concession that would give nationalists two extra seats.
Then Tony Blair arrived in Belfast to finalise with Unionists, so party sources say, the details of two of those bodies, one dealing witn EU matters and one dealing with trade and business promotion. The Unionist version is that Seamus Mallon then upped the ante, demanding that there be up to eight cross-Border bodies.
The Nationalist account denies any prior deal and says that there was indeed a proposal for eight bodies but that this was agreed between David Trimble, Tony Blair and Seamus Mallon and would have been endorsed by the Taoiseach in the early hours of Thursday.
Whatever the truth of these accounts there is one definite outcome from last week's spats and that is a probable delay in the new NI Assembly getting real powers. The original timetable envisaged last April was that the Assembly would move from shadow to real form in February next year. However the absence of agreement on key institutions such as the North-South ministerial council could mean delays in drafting the complex legislation needed to transfer powers to the Northern bodies. There are predictions that it could now be April or May before the Assembly "goes live" and that assumes that other obstacles such as IRA decommissioning have been overcome.
According to Unionist sources last week's problems began when David Trimble tried but failed to get his Assembly team to endorse the deal agreed with Tony Blair. This in turn has raised serious questions in both Unionist and Nationalist minds about Trimble's style of leadership.
Irish government sources claim that last week's problems were in part a result of Trimble's style of negotiation. They complain that during talks Nationalists can sometimes be faced with two sets of Unionist negotiators and as many as eight individuals who appear not to share basic information such as documents. The result, they claim, is that it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to know when a deal has been cut.
Dissident Unionists make a similar complaint, alleging that the party leader keeps his intentions either to himself or to a select band of allies but rarely shares information with the wider Assembly party until a deal has been agreed and he needs their endorsement.
This, they claim, is what happened last week. "Most Assembly members were still of the view that it would be six cross-Border bodies and six portfolios and most importantly no deviation from the agreement". Instead the deal appeared to be ten ministries and a trade and industry cross-Border body whose exclusion from the agreement last April was touted by Trimble's allies as a major negotiating coup.
"There's general dismay at the balance of the agreement", argued one Unionist backbencher who estimated the numbers unhappy in varying degrees with last week's events at half the 28 member Assembly team.
"Unionists have given too much. It was a draw on cross-Border bodies, the Nationalists gave on Irish. But is twas a loss on portfolios. The public perception is that the Ulster Unionists held the line but buckled in the face of Blair and therefore are weak negotiators."
Despite denials of reports of "spitting blood" in Downing Street there is a widespread belief that the Unionist leader has seriously damaged his relationship with the British prime minister Tony Blair. "His 'special' relationship with Blair was of vital importance to him but now Blair must be saying that while its easy to do a deal with Trimble, Trimble can't deliver his people", crowed one Unionist dissident.
Sources close to Trimble are this weekend confidently predicting a deal in a day or so - "When our people see how little Nationalists really got", according to one - it seems that the Belfast Agreement could be in for a period of stalemate and delay. And the passage of time can only exacerbate the decommissioning issue.