Making a sequel to long Good Friday Agreement

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The Independent Online
THE SCENE at Stormont was, as a Belfast reporter once wrote, like deja vu all over again. It looked as though a film company was making a sequel to last year's Good Friday Agreement, the principals and the extras once more in place.

Important-looking cars wafted important-looking people past craning cameramen into Castle Buildings, where Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were trying to perform the near-miracle of binding Unionism and republicanism into a workable compromise.

An exception to the motoring splendour was Martin McGuinness, who drew up in a modest enough car, himself driving. An RUC officer - obliging but impassive - lifted the barrier to allow him and his colleagues inside. Within the building Mr Blair was presumably trying to get David Trimble to do the same.

The Unionist MP Ken Maginnis also departed from the norm, chatting casually into a mobile phone as his four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle scattered reporters from its path. It was an entirely appropriate vehicle for Mr Maginnis, who serves as the Ulster Unionist Party's heavy-duty tank.

Castle Buildings had been carefully chosen as a venue, for it was here that the Good Friday Agreement was hammered out. The Government hoped that enough good vibrations remained to help to achieve another breakthrough.

Hundreds of media representatives laid siege to the talks building, an ant hill of questing newsmen and women moving among the giant grey mushrooms of satellite dishes and the array of television cameras, which were trained like a firing squad on the main door.

In the virtually fact-free atmosphere, reporters traded snippets and expressed their instincts. "I hear canteen staff have been asked to stay on till 3am," said one. "I'm feeling more nervous now, it's slipping a bit," said another. "Yeah, it's floating away," said a woman journalist, but another contradicted her: "I can't see how they can't make a deal."

The local media aristocrats Frank Millar and Eamonn Mallie, men noted for being on the inside track, moved confidently through the throng. A local politics don, wearing a three-piece suit to look suitably professorial, was doing television interviews, blinding everyone with political science.

A Swiss television man, who had been to Belfast to cover the 1981 IRA hunger strikes, was back for what he hoped might be one of the final chapters in the long Irish story. His editors wanted it all summed up in a two- minute report. A Japanese television reporter - standing on a large box to bring her up to Western camera height - was informing the Far East of the state of play, while American television men, resplendent in their military style "hey, we've been in far worse trouble-spots than this" jackets, did the same for the United States.

But the real sense of history in the making was imparted by the presence of the really big celebrities. Jon Snow moved among us; Michael Brunson cruised past; and if that was Mark Mardell, Paxman himself could surely not be far behind. Sure enough Jeremy eventually appeared, confirming the sense that this Really Could Be It.

When, a little later, some minor politicians strolled into the media marquee, some journalists were so engrossed in Tim Henman's Wimbledon match on television that they missed them. In truth, however, they were giving little away. Asked about a possible timetable for decommissioning a jovial Sinn Feiner told those clustered round him: "The only timetable we have is for the bus."

When he started an answer, "Our position is ..." there were so many groans that he simply stopped and grinned. He gave nothing away, though his relaxed body language was taken as a sign that republicans did not seem to be under extreme pressure.

Instead the talk was mostly of the Unionists, and whether David would go for it, and if he did what Jeffrey and John might do: would they walk out, would there be a leadership challenge, what would the party do? There was much head-shaking and uncertainty.

Johnny Coghlin, a veteran cameraman who reads things better than most reporters, summed it up: "Emotions are changing all the time. Talk to somebody here and they're hopeful; talk to the same person half an hour later and they're pessimistic. There are more ups and downs in this one than ever before."