72 hours from a deal?

By all accounts today is a critical day for negotiations. Most of the heated speculation revolves around one quote from Ian Paisley: “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.”The DUP leader was due to meet the Taoiseach in London’s Irish Embassy at 8.30 this morning, then going on to meet Tony Blair. According to Tommy Gorman on Morning Ireland.

This morning’s meeting may kick off a 72 hour choreography that will end in Dr Paisley’s recommendation for or against the still secret government proposals for a deal at a special party conference. In interview, even Brian Feeney betrayed a sanguine attitude towards the prospects of the DUP signing.

What seems important about Paisley’s words is the sudden sense of urgency about them. It may indicate that his party feels it has gained enough of what they set out for them to run with into next year’s Westminster election.

There has been a certainty amongst some very senior levels of the UUP that their rivals were ‘culturally incapable of striking a compromise’. And it may be that the party has been counting on the DUP not doing a deal before next May.

But if this deal goes through this week, then it would seem that game is off and they could be facing rivals that would not only hold the largest swathe of seats in the Assembly, but will be entitled to four out of the ten executive seats and the office of First Minister.

Formidable.

On the other side of the house, Sinn Féin’s mind is likely to be less on edging out their nationalist rivals the SDLP so much as beefing up their governmental credentials sufficiently in advance of the next Dáil elections to raise their game on the ground amongst the Republic’s poorest and socially excluded groups to the more influential middle class votes.

Clear agreement on the legitimacy of the North South bodies is unlikely to buy that many supplementary votes north of the border, but it will give relevant Sinn Fein ministers and party representatives the opportunity to raise the party’s governmental profile in the Republic, and more pro-actively assert it’s all Ireland Republican credentials.

However it pans out, this week may in retrospect turn out to be the winning candidate (amongst many) for the ultimate accolade of ‘historic’. Insofar as it only represents an agreement to certain actions so that our two-year long hiatus can be brought to a close, it will hardly be the cause of popular celebration.

Fionnuala O’Connor (Ulster’s queen of the erudite aphorism) had it in one recently in her Irish Times column, when she described these final moments as ‘not a bang so much as a harmonious whimper’.

We wait to see if this week’s events live up to their billing.