Ian Paisley is facing a critical decision on a package of proposals by the British and Irish governments which could end the deadlock in the North’s peace process.

The veteran unionist hardliner has admitted he was surprised at how much progress has been made in negotiations aimed at restoring power-sharing in Belfast.

“We have made greater progress than I thought we could have made - I admit that. But that is nothing to lie back on.”

Mr Paisley said the IRA had “given us no promises whatsoever” on a British proposal to disarm in front of cameras.

But he added: “If Northern Ireland is going to get a fair deal, and it has not got a fair deal so far, it`ll get a fair deal now.

“If we miss the opportunity we’ll never get this back again.”

He said he planned to give Tony Blair the party’s response to the British-Irish proposals today and wanted him to respond “paragraph-by-paragraph”.

Mr Paisley was speaking on Tuesday after a party delegation met British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy.

He said the DUP delegation discussed the future of the British Army in the North in a “very intense” meeting with Mr Murphy.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin are also backing the creation of a 1 billion pound peace fund to fund any new adminstration at Stormont - about one ninth of North’s annual subvention from the British exchequer.

The financial package is the least contentious part of a controversial deal which could transform the North of Ireland. The deal could rewrite the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, bring an end to the Provisional IRA, and secure a share of the political power in the North for Sinn Féin.

However, the rival nationalist SDLP have blasted the current talks and the goverments’ proposals, which they say amounts to a DUP wish-list.

In a statement, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said it was clear the DUP was getting a very good deal.

The DUP had been offered “a triple veto”, he said.

He said this was “a veto on who nationalist ministers can be; a veto on any more north-south co-operation; a veto on any target for achieving devolution of justice”.

“The fact is that under these proposals, Martin McGuinness would not have been minister for education. He would have been vetoed by unionism.

“Sinn Féin has said that this proposal will not cause them too much heartache. But the notion that the DUP can veto the appointment of nationalist ministers will give many a heart attack,” Mr Durkan said.

Sinn Féin have responded by insisting they will not accept a deal which is not “rooted” in the Good Friday Agreement.

The party said last night that it is looking for a sign that Paisley’s party is prepared to share power with it and that today “could be an historic day”.

Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, said the British government needed to make it clear to the DUP that it had to reach a decision soon. He said the DUP should be told of the consequences of not striking a deal to restore power sharing.

“I think we are in the defining, final moments of these discussions,” he observed.

“I certainly get a sense from the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister that they are not content to leave this on the other side of the (Westminster) election.

“Mr Paisley has to hear firmly from both Prime Ministers that it is make your mind up time now.”

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