A long-awaited commitment to power-sharing by Ian Paisley is in doubt this weekend amid reports that the DUP may go through the motions of appointing a Six-County Executive but will block meetings of the Executive taking place for an undefined “testing period” of at least two months.
This emerged after a meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a DUP delegation led by Mr Paisley yielded only the promise of further behind-the-scenes negotiations over the weekend.
DUP demands for a greater financial package for the Six Counties were not assuaged by the announcement during the week of an extra billion pounds sterling by British Chancellor Gordon Brown. The 26-County government pledged to provide 40% of the total.
While most observers believe the DUP are playing brinkmanship to extract the best possible deal, many still believe the party may somehow defy immense political pressure and fudge the deadline.
The ruling executive party is holding a key meeting today [Saturday] to consider its options.
While plans are in hand for a first meeting of a new executive on Tuesday - which British officials say is necessary to defer controversial water charges - it is thought that the process could still “crash” at this point.
A number of DUP MPs, including Willie McCrea, Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell are said to want the party to continue demanding further concessions, pointing out that all previous ‘deadlines’ in the peace process have been missed.
In a further ratcheting of the pressure on the DUP, British government officials confirmed that the water bills had been processed and would be posted out to homes across the North on Tuesday if a power sharing government is not established on March 26th.
Speaking in Dublin yesterday Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams appealed to the DUP “not to wobble”, adding: “Fortune favours the brave and I wish the DUP well in their deliberations.”
The party’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, was confident that Monday’s meeting of the Assembly will proceed as planned. “Come the end of Monday you will see a first and deputy first minister and 10 other ministers appointed,” he said.
“It will probably be the biggest political development since the 1916 Rising or the partition of Ireland,” he added.
“I think it will be a development that will be hugely welcomed throughout the island and throughout the international community.
Asked about working with Mr Paisley, the Mid Ulster MP agreed they were poles apart.
“My allegiance is to Ireland. His allegiance is to what he describes as the United Kingdom,” he said.
“We have been long-term political opponents during a very bitter conflict that exist-ed for some 25 years during which times there was a lot of injustice, discrimination, domination, inequality, violence, conflict and death.
“During all of that time, did I like Ian Paisley? No, I didn’t. Did he like me? Most certainly he didn’t.’’
However, Mr McGuinness said the fact that politicians were on the threshold of getting the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement up and running again imposed a massive responsibility on all to work together.
“I want to work normally with Ian Paisley. I want normal relationships between him and I,” he said. “I want to do the business with him. Will we ever be bosom buddies? I don’t know. Let’s try.”
POPE BACKS PROCESS
The formation of a powersharing government in Belfast would represent a “powerful Christian witness to the world” according to Pope Benedict.
In a private audience with Irish President Mary McAleese in the Vatican yesterday, the pope told her that such a government would offer a good example of “Christians working out their problems in a very reconciliatory way”.
Talking to reporters after her 34-minute audience with Pope Benedict in the pontifical library, President McAleese explained: “The pope was very encouraging about the Irish peace process.”
* Irish Republican News will provide breaking news over the weekend and next week in response to any developments.