Deal on devolution close as Paisley sounds upbeat note

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Indy Politics

A new surge of hope for a Northern Ireland breakthrough came in Scotland yesterday after three days of talks concluded with remarkably conciliatory words from the Reverend Ian Paisley.

The Democratic Unionist party leader strongly implied that a detailed new document drawn up by the British and Irish governments could be the basis for a new settlement in which he would team up with Martin McGuinness.

With a similarly favourable reaction coming from Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, the moving of both parties to a St Andrews hotel appeared to have paid dividends. There had been apprehension that Mr Paisley might bring the negotiation process to an abrupt halt by seizing on one of the various potential deal-breakers which are strewn around the political scene. Instead he gave a fair wind to the 5,000-word document which prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern circulated to the parties.

It sets out an intricate sequence of moves designed to bring a power-sharing Assembly back into business by next March, with Mr Paisley as first minister and Mr McGuinness as his deputy.

In the meantime Sinn Fein will meet the Paisley demand for full republican support for policing and the rule of law. "The day of the gunmen in government are hopefully over forever," he declared as the conference wound up yesterday.

Legislation should be passed at Westminster by 24 November, the original deadline for agreement. Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness would be nominated as the two top ministers.

Later there will be some form of electoral endorsement for the deal, either by referendum or through an election. If all goes well a new executive and Assembly are planned to be up and running by 26 March.

The timetable has been laid out publicly and in great detail so as to lock both sides into agreed arrangements for successful devolution.

Mr Paisley claimed his party had made substantial advances for unionism at St Andrews, both in terms of the major matters and also on issues such as education and rates reform. He said his party would be undertaking widespread consultation on the new plan.

Tony Blair said: "I think there is a basis for moving forward. It is very difficult. People have to overcome very, very entrenched positions over a number of years. No one will find it easy or comfortable sitting in the Executive with people with whom they'd once been deeply hostile.

"Of course everyone has had to make compromises during the course of these negotiations to get what they wanted, but nonetheless I think it is a proper and sound basis for doing it."

Mr Ahern added: "I believe we have all the elements that can bring satisfaction to all the issues. If not perfect by everybody's agenda, it's a fair and sustainable balance."

Mr Adams said: "Sometimes there's a lot of talk about delivery. Republicans have delivered big time in recent times. We have a moral responsibility to keep delivering, but it's a collective responsibility. Commonsense political realism and the interest of all our people demand we achieve this."

Mr Paisley said: "When IRA/Sinn Fein meet the requirements we will be on the way to a peaceful future and a good future for the children of Northern Ireland."

At the talks republicans were apparently unsuccessful in achieving their goal of an early devolution of policing and security powers from London to Belfast. This will be one of a number of issues which were not tied down at St Andrews and remain to be thrashed out.

Countdown to government

* 13 October: The UK and Irish governments publish the St Andrews Agreement

* 17 October: Regular meetings to begin to agree priorities for new executive

* 20-21 November: Legislation at Westminster to give effect to the St Andrews Agreement

* 24 November: Assembly meets to nominate First Minister and Deputy

* January: Monitoring Commission report

* March: Electorate invited to endorse the St Andrews Agreement

* 14 March: Members of the Executive nominated by party leaders

* 26 March: Devolution

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