The peace process has survived one of its most dramatic days in recent years despite a major political crisis and an almost simultaneous gun and bomb attack at the Belfast Assembly.
Extraordinary scenes of unionist paramilitary Michael Stone staging a serious assault on the Stormont parliamentary buildings outside Belfast came as a political drama was unfolding within.
Ian Paisley’s unexpected refusal to permit his designation as the DUP’s future candidate for First Minister in a power-sharing administration in Belfast threw into chaos a carefully planned political fudge to allow the continuation of the St Andrews process.
The governments had hoped the process, which grew out of negotiations in Scotland last month, would lead to the revival of the political institutions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement by March next year.
Legislation implementing the proposals had called for Sinn Féin and the DUP to indicate their candidates for the two top posts in the restored power-sharing Executive.
Announcing himself to the Assembly as a man of “plain speech”, Dr Paisley said he would not fudge the issues nor engage in “word games”.
On the issue of supporting the PSNI police, the rule of law and the courts, the DUP leader accused Sinn Féin of failing to do so “up to this point”.
“Rather they have equivocated, hesitated and by various means have obstructed progress and continued to blame my party for the delay,” he said. Only when Sinn Féin backed the police and met “other commitments” could progress be made.
“Delivery is in the hands of Sinn Féin and there can and will be no movement until they face up and sign up to their obligations.
“The government stressed before, during and after the St Andrews talks that the twin pillars for agreement are DUP support for power-sharing and Sinn Féin support for policing,” he said.
“Clearly as Sinn Féin is not yet ready to take the decisive step forward on policing, the DUP is not required to commit to any aspect of power-sharing in advance of such certainty.
“Circumstances have not been reached that there can be a nomination or a designation this day,” Dr Paisley said.
“I have made clear my aim, hope and desire for the future. Throughout the DUP consultations, it was stated if and when commitments are delivered, the DUP would enter government.
“At that time, there will fall to me a judgment consistent with the policy that delivery on the ground is a basis for moving forward. Here I stand.”
Dr Paisley’s defiant statement was followed by a statement by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, who proceeded with the nomination of his chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, as deputy first minister.
He told the chamber he agreed with Ian Paisley that it was “an important day”. Along with the DUP, he said republicans too faced challenges in the months ahead. “But I believe that all the parties in this chamber and the two governments can overcome these challenges.”
Mr Adams denounced “British direct rule” as “bad rule” and said he shared in the DUP wish to see local accountability at Stormont.
“The DUP say they have difficulty sharing power with republicans,” he told members. “Let me tell you that many, many nationalists and republicans are concerned at the prospect of Sinn Féin sharing power with the DUP. But that is also a challenge that we must rise to.”
He said all had to accept responsibility for what had occurred.
“With goodwill we can create a space in which all the issues of difference including policing and power-sharing, on poverty or any other matter can satisfactorily be dealt with.
“Today is another day in the inch-by-inch process of putting the political institutions back in place.”
Mr McGuinness then spoke briefly to accept Mr Adams’s nomination.
“If it is the will of the people and Sinn Féin I will represent the people as deputy first minister. I will carry out my responsibilities and duties conscientiously and will respect and promote the common good of all our people at all times.”
The political confusion deepened when Paisley’s rejection was ignored by the Speaker of the Assembly, who proceeded as if the nominations process had been successful.
This was challenged by Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey and independent unionist Bob McCartney.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan branded the proceedings a “hollow farce” and he accused the British Direct Ruler Peter Hain of resorting to “remote direction” of events in the Assembly.
“Language and logic has been turned inside out and on its head,” he said.
Alliance leader David Ford branded Dr Paisley’s statement as “the longest ‘maybe’ in history ever”.
Only the evacuation of Stormont in the aftermath of Stone’s attack then drew a curtain on the bitterly criticised attempts to launch the transitional Assembly. The first meeting of the half-way-house political body was intended to begin preparations for the return of the full-blown Assembly following an election in March next year.
As politicians, staff and members of the media huddled in the rain following the general evacuation, a desperate damage-limitations exercise was underway by the Dublin and London governments to deal with the turn of events.
But with Stormont occupied only by British Army bomb-disposal teams, a group of twelve hardline DUP Assembly members issued a statement to underline their belief that their party had refused to indicate a nomination, effectively challenging the legality of the Assembly proceedings.
This statement was signed by Nigel Dodds, William McCrea, Gregory Campbell, David Simpson, Lord Morrow, Diane Dodds, Paul Girvan, Stephen Moutray, Nelson McCausland, Mervyn Storey, Tom Buchanan and deputy speaker Jim Wells.
However, by last night, a statement emerged from Mr Paisley, allowing for his future nomination in the context of Sinn Féin agreeing to certain demands and other conditions. This was declared sufficient by the two governments to meet the requirements of the process and allow the transitional Assembly to convene.
Mr Paisley himself said he had made his position clear on the conditions of accepting the post of First Minister.
“The prime minister has made his decision about my speech and how he interprets it,” Mr Paisley said.
“I have always said, as I said today in the assembly, what my intention will be if policing and all of the other outstanding issues that are before us are settled.
“Everyone know that in those circumstances after they are delivered I would accept the First Minister’s nomination provided the election results are favourable.”
Mr Paisley’s comments were welcomed by secretary of state Peter Hain, who said he expected the DUP leader and Mr McGuinness to become First and Deputy First Ministers if all sides endorsed the St Andrews proposals.
“Although there was some confusion in the assembly, caused not least by the attack on security, the fact that the leader of the DUP has confirmed his intention to accept the First Minister’s nomination, provided outstanding issues including support for policing are addressed, shows that we are still on track,” Mr Hain said.
“However, there is a great deal of work to do and considerable efforts need to be made by the DUP and Sinn Féin especially to move forward.”
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams called for the transitional Assembly to be re-convened as quickly as possible.
He said he stood by his comments in the Assembly yesterday morning, when he nominated Martin McGuinness for the position of Deputy First Minister, and that he had spent the afternoon talking to the British and Irish governments.
“I believe that all of the outstanding issues can be resolved if the political will is there. We can’t be put off by what happened [at Stormont on Friday], our focus has to be on securing the return of fully functioning political institutions.”
Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness said his party would not be deflected from the process and denied his party was being naive in their approach to the DUP.
“We have set out our stall clearly. We have nominated for the position of Deputy First Minister as required and we look forward to the Assembly reconvening again on Monday to complete this work,” he said.
“However we are not naive about any of this and all eyes remain on the DUP and the approach they will adopt to moving the process forward in the coming weeks.
“After Monday’s planned Assembly meeting the Programme for Government Committee will come together.
“That is the forum where outstanding matters, including issues on policing and justice, should be raised and resolved. But I have to say the issue of policing and the resolution to it is as much an issue for the British government and the DUP as it is for Sinn Féin.
“So we remain absolutely focused on the task of ensuring progress is made in the coming weeks and I firmly believe that if the necessary political will and courage is displayed then we can bring about a situation where all of the outstanding aspects of the Agreement including the political institutions are finally delivered.”