Are Paisley and Adams on the brink of the deal to end all deals?

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The Independent Online

Old enemies in Northern Ireland were edging towards a deal last night that could break the year-long stalemate in the peace process and pave the way for a lasting settlement.

Old enemies in Northern Ireland were edging towards a deal last night that could break the year-long stalemate in the peace process and pave the way for a lasting settlement.

Months of poring over scores of differences have brought the two sides ­ the republican movement led by Gerry Adams and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists ­ within sight of a deal that a year ago seemed impossible.

With a blizzard of meetings under way, it should become clear this week whether the breakthrough can be made and whether the remaining gaps can be filled.

But so many apparently done deals have crumbled at the last moment that no one is taking anything for granted.

Tony Blair voiced this yesterday when he said: "I think probably the best thing is for me to say very little. So many times before, hopes have been raised and then dashed that I'm almost fearful of raising them. It's obvious that people would like to get a deal done ­ whether that is possible or not, the next few days will tell us."

Many marvel that two sides with such a reservoir of mutual loathing could even have reached this point, yet almost everyone engaged in this lengthy negotiation has come to accept that both are sincerely seeking agreement. A deal would not be based on trust or on common policies, resting instead on the fact that the two parties want to get into government, but cannot do so without each other.

Each side blames the other for causing the Troubles, with all the decades of murder and mayhem. But each pragmatically recognises that as the dominant parties on the political landscape there is little alternative to doing business together. Mr Paisley is seeking the complete decommissioning of IRA weaponry and a guarantee the IRA will essentially shut up shop. Republicans want assurances that the DUP will go into government with Sinn Fein.

Success would represent breathtaking advances. Such an IRA initiative would go a long way to removing the gun from Irish politics, while Mr Paisley would be dropping his decades-long opposition to power sharing. A breakthrough now would begin months of sequencing. In one scenario the IRA would agree to putting its arms beyond use by early next year, paving the way for a new devolved government by March or April.

The Belfast Assembly has been in suspension for a year since Unionists walked out complaining of republican misbehaviour. Its restoration could mean an administration with Mr Paisley as First Minister and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as his deputy. But the road to such an outcome is littered with obstacles and difficulties. The IRA has in recent years decommissioned weapons on three occasions, but the lack of visual evidence meant the events had little impact.

This time republicans seem prepared to allow decommissioning to be witnessed not only by the Canadian general John de Chastelain, who has been there in the past, but also by a priest and a Protestant minister. Mr Paisley is pressing in addition for photographic evidence, which republicans have yet to agree to. A major republican concern is that IRA decommissioning, which would have to happen up front, might be followed by DUP stalling.

Many other elements are in play, including the question of how soon responsibility for policing and justice might be transferred to a revived Assembly.

Sinn Fein's keenness to accelerate the gradual reduction in security force activity led yesterday to the first meeting between Gerry Adams and the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde. It was held at Downing Street and was seen as yet another small but significant step in the peace process.

The republicans are pressing in particular for the removal of military watchtowers in the south Armagh area, which local people complain are obtrusive.

Any political agreement will have to be festooned with safeguards, assurances and guarantees to make up for the almost complete lack of trust between the two sides. All negotiations between them, in fact, are being conducted at one remove since the DUP will not speak to Sinn Fein directly.

But the British and Irish governments take heart from the fact that the two parties have conscientiously engaged with difficult issues and seem to have reached outline agreement on many of them.

The arms issue remains central. Mr Paisley declared yesterday: "If this decommissioning problem can be solved, then we are on our way. But it is not solved at the present time."

The critical moment will come if and when the IRA declares its hand, signalling how it will conduct decommissioning and how it will provide visual confirmation of it. At that point, all involved should know whether to prepare for breakthrough or breakdown.