Republicans and Unionists were on the verge of a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process last night, paving the way for the announcement of new Assembly elections.
An intensive series of talks yesterday between the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, seemed to have brought the two parties close to a deal, with the two leaders meeting twice to resolve areas of disagreement. Although hopes are high that they will conclude a deal, no one will celebrate until the two signify agreement.
One source close to the talks said: "As always there are last-minute jitters. We hope it will come together, but it's not in the bag yet."
A deal would mean republican concessions in the form of more IRA arms decommissioning, with a formal assurance that its paramilitary activities will draw to a close. In return, republicans are pressing for demilitarisation by the authorities and a promise that the Belfast Assembly's powers would eventually be expanded to include responsibility for policing and justice, possibly within two years.
While the British and Irish authorities are intimately involved in the negotiations, the key question is whether Mr Adams and Mr Trimble can make common cause. If they do agree, both will have difficulties in selling such an agreement to their respective political bases. Some grassroots republicans will be alarmed at the prospect of an IRA without any armed capability, while Mr Trimble has many critics both inside and outside his party.
Prospects for a deal rose at the weekend when the Ulster Unionist leader delivered what was viewed as a remarkably conciliatory speech at his party's annual conference. In repeating his familiar demand for the winding up of paramilitary organisations, he added: "But we did not, as some suggest, say that every jot and tittle must be complete before we would proceed.Neither the Government's formula nor ours says that everything must be done first.
"Rather, both envisage a sense that paramilitarism is coming to an end soon."
This is taken as a sign that the IRA should be given leeway in terms of time.Mr Trimble further signalled that, in the right context, he had no insuperable problems with people with IRA reputations, such as Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, running policing or justice. It is clear that such a prospect would have to be balanced by IRA movement on an impressive scale.
The group has twice decommissioned weapons, but in a non-visible way that had little political impact.The exact form of words it would use are unknown, though at the weekend Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein perhaps gave a foretaste when he said: "Now we have ended the war in our streets." He went on to welcome Mr Trimble's speech, saying it gave encouragement that an agreement could be reached.
A deal would mean that an Assembly election, to be held in November, would take place with the prospect of a new coalition being put together. Tony Blair has been reluctant to call an election without a deal in place, while Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, has said that going to the polls without a prior agreement would mean "we'd be goosed".
London and Dublin will be mightily relieved if a last-minute deal is secured.