Irish Peace Talks: Spin and counterspin around the media village

"WHAT my station will want to know is what divides the two sides," a Danish TV journalist explained to a British colleague, vainly hoping for an answer. If he was referring to 400 years of frequently blood-stained history there just wasn't the time to do justice to the question. If he meant what exactly was going on behind the grim featureless exterior of the castle buildings at Stormont, there were no definite answers to that either.

A ragged village of Portakabins, makeshift canvas television "studios", a marquee with trestle tables for laptops and all too occasional cups of coffee and lukewarm sausage rolls signified what journalistic veterans of the Troubles said was the largest and most concentrated international media presence ever seen in Northern Ireland.

We could pick out, from the bitterly cold concourse in front of the building, some of the leading figures in the negotiations arguing, pacing, and writing at tables in the curtainless, brightly lit rooms on the first floor. All four rooms looking out of the front of the building were being used by nationalists' delegations. Two on the right were Sinn Fein, temporarily decorated, one with a tricolour and the other with a recognisable portrait of the martyred hunger striker Bobby Sands. In one of the other two, both alloted to the Social Democratic and Labour Party, it was possible to discern the standing figure of Joe Hendron, the party's former member for West Belfast, the seat now occupied by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

A dozen or so satellite dishes beamed out repeated open-air impromptu press conferences given by party delegations to the waiting world.

Gnomic utterances, supplemented by furtive mobile phone calls to the parties inside the building, formed the basis of such journalistic wisdom there was to be had.

The battery of TV crews and reporters clearly visible to the talks participants inside the building once described by Gerry Adams as "Castlereagh with coffee" appeared last night to be one of the pressures forcing the parties closer together.

The inter-play of media and negotiations was dramatically underlined last night when an Ulster Unionist official emerged from the talks to remonstrate with a senior ITN correspondent for a report he had seen minutes earlier suggesting that his party had made "concessions" to the Nationalists over the cross-border bodies.

There was spin, and counter-spin, from all the parties but very little hard wording from the detailed documents under discussion in the notoriously uncongenial offices within. Everybody knew that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, were inching the parties towards the kind of historic breakthrough which the 1970s Sunningdale Agreement had tried, and in the end failed, to achieve.

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