Free Willy!

LEEDS Castle is exactly what you imagine a fairytale castle should look like – high walls and a moat, towers, a maze in the gardens and high-ranking leaders holding court inside. As the sun shone yesterday, the location for the latest political talks looked idyllic.Of course, the ramparts are equally good at keeping the media’s prying eyes at bay, and the leaders have been wandering in another maze (or maybe even Maze) for years. The journalists who huddle in a nearby hotel seemed a little frustrated at the distance between themselves and those inside, compounded by the lack of decent mobile phone signals, and the castle’s antiquated communications. It may look spectacular, but a modern hotel is probably better suited to facilitate such gatherings.

Prime Minister Blair and Taoiseach Ahern seem intent that this should not be another peace process staging post, that there should be a degree of finality by Saturday afternoon (when a wedding is apparently scheduled for the castle) and that their ‘Plan B’, which would surely mean greater involvement by the Irish Republic, is the alternative to failure.

Yet, there wasn’t the same degree of urgency that one might have expected yesterday. The premiers arrived in the early afternoon, the helicopters setting down on the immaculate baize lawn beside the moat, before their motorcades travelled the few hundred metres to the front door. Blair may well have felt like pulling up a drawbridge behind him, if he is as determined to bang heads together as he says. At meetings, he is said to have listened intently, and both he and Ahern took plenty of notes.

On the lawn the premiers gave a brief press conference, stating their determination to reach a resolution. Blair’s deadlines have become devalued currency, and I wonder if he would really ditch everything if he could cobble together something for the optics.

Officials have held probably dozens of meetings with all the parties by now. From the British side, Ministers Spellar and Pearson are here, with Powell playing a prominent role, while McDowell, Cowan and Kitt are representing the Irish. US envoy Mitchell Reiss is also talking to parties.

There are mixed reports on some of the meetings. Sinn Fein apparently made much of the listening device in their meeting with Blair. McGuinness later joked that his fingerprints had never been on the bug, while one MLA suggested to Adams that the transmitter could maybe be used to boost mobile phone signals to the outside world.

Paisley, who has been accompanied to Kent by wife Eileen after he decided not to fly, reminded the Prime Minister that ill health would not stop him delivering his sermon in the style to which he is accustomed. One DUP source seemed quite upbeat on the decommissioning, and there is perhaps the possibility of a statement from P O’Neill at some point soon, assuming the wording can be sorted. Perhaps the DUP’s office in the Queen’s Gallery is providing royal inspiration – there are certainly enough regal portraits in the stately castle. It makes Hillsborough look positively republican.

The SDLP’s visit has been overshadowed by the resignation of Martin Morgan back in Belfast. Like Henry VIII’s famous separation from Catherine of Aragon, whose room they are using, the divorce has been messy and the bride’s position has been undermined. Unlike that forsaken Spanish bride, they are unlikely to appeal to the Pope for assistance.

What progress is being made on other issues is difficult to say. No draft paper has yet been produced, although that is likely to change soon. Officials seem quietly confident, although there is an undertone of caution. Bilateral meetings between the parties were slow to start, but the pace is picking up as proposals are put forward. The potential for a breakdown in communication still exists, as the DUP and Sinn Fein are still not talking, although the DUP and UUP are not talking, and the only party seen talking to Bob McCartney was the DUP.

It is also likely that the talks will continue in the castle long into the night.

It looks as though something is going to happen. But will it be enough? Will it be sustainable? Will it all come together in time, before the bride and groom arrive at lunchtime on Saturday? Or is the DUP and Sinn Fein’s shotgun marriage destined to remain a flirtatious arms-length courtship forever?

Oh, and Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR) representative Willie Frazer, who has spent most of his time at the gates of Leeds Castle with a ‘Disband the IRA’ banner was arrested at the Ramada Hotel. While eating in the hotel, he was asked to leave (something to do with a wedding party also on the premises, I think). When he refused, he was carted out, crying “What about the Provies? Is this what the people of Ulster get?” and the like, thus providing the reporters with some much-needed ‘colour’ and Willie with the media coverage he so desperately wanted…