The men behind the wire

David McKittrick sees the republican and loyalist spin-doctors hijack a moment in history
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The Independent Online
Up close, it didn't feel like the stuff of history. It seemed like confusion, a disorganised melee in which, not for the first time, the republican and loyalist publicity machines bested the Government's spin-doctors.

John Major did his best, on the first day of potentially momentous talks in Belfast, to strike a note of realistic statesmanship: he had no illusions, he said, that the talks process would not be long, difficult and demanding.

But the propaganda battle-honours of the day went to Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, who grabbed the headlines with their finely-calculated grandstanding. Mr Adams was pictured worldwide as the potential peacemaker barred from the conference chamber; Mr Paisley, who cares little for the wider world and concentrates on his domestic market, was able to project himself locally as the Union's fiercest defender.

Inside Castle Buildings in suburban east Belfast, the parties and the British and Irish governments finally convened for what might or might not turn out to be all-important talks. The presence of Mr Major and the Taoiseach, John Bruton, was meant to send the message that this was the real thing.

But, as so often before, Mr Paisley, veteran of a thousand demos, protests and headline-grabbing manoeuvres, took the proceedings by the scruff of the neck. George Mitchell, the former US Senator asked by the two governments to chair much of the talks was, Mr Paisley declared, "fully in the republican camp. If he's in, I'm out".

A Mitchell-Paisley meeting was hastily arranged, but the Democratic Unionist leader emerged from it with his earlier opinion intact. Thus it was that Mr Major, having made his opening speech, handed over the proceedings not to Senator Mitchell but to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

Doing so averted a potential Paisley walkout, but it also introduced a new element of uncertainty as to Senator Mitchell's role in the whole process. Then, with Sir Patrick in the chair, Mr Paisley and others tried to unpick the agenda thrashed out last week by London and Dublin. Mr Major's forecast that it could be long, difficult and demanding already rings true.

The Major and Bruton speeches were meant to be broadcast live on BBC. But, half an hour before they went on air, somebody in the Government pulled the plug and the live coverage was aborted. The Government was worried, the rumour went, about the possibility of Paisleyite heckling.

The cameras focused instead on Gerry Adams who, as promised, led a large Sinn Fein team up to Stormont to demand entry to the talks. The largest media posse ever seen in Belfast recorded Mr Adams encountering gates secured with a padlock. They then filmed him circumventing this obstacle and making his way up to another set of gates.

Here the cameras, which came from Japan, Norway and many other countries, dwelt on him for long and lovingly.

It went on for so long that one government press officer completely lost his cool. Abandoning the subtler points of news management, he simply grabbed one television camera and wrenched it off the amazed cameraman's shoulder.

"Get off", said the shocked cameraman. But when he refocused, the press officer tried to pull the wires off the back of the camera.

But the Sinn Fein retinue moved remorselessly on through the gates and headed for the conference centre itself, surrounded by a crowd of perhaps 300 media people, Mr Adams speechifying all the time. While the Prime Minister was opening the talks, the cameras instead feasted on the strong, simple image of the republicans being denied a place at the table.

It was at the third and final fence that the Sinn Fein crew became, in the words of the old republican tune, the men behind the wire. The rousing drinking-song is particularly apposite for Mr Adams himself, for he was once interned and then convicted of attempting to escape from lawful custody.

On this occasion, however, he was trying to get in rather than trying to get out. A government official appeared on the other side of the chain- link fence, and several exchanges followed.

When it was finally established that, as everyone had expected, that the gate would not be opened, the Sinn Fein delegation peeled away to give an impromptu press conference, followed by dozens of interviews.

Martin McGuinness remarked that it was the biggest media scrum he had ever seen. "I can't believe how stupid they are," one Sinn Fein member said in wonderment of the Government. "Do you know," said another, "that the Northern Ireland Office has over 40 press officers? Think of the damage we could do with that."

Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley presumably went home last night, put their feet up and reflected on a good day's tactical work. The Government people, licking their wounds, presumably reflected that Rome wasn't built in a day, that the worst of the pyrotechnics might be passed and that, hopefully, tomorrow is another day. Major's message, page 2