Loyalist storm-clouds are gathering. The Rev Ian Paisley attempted to whip up opposition to the talks, when on Monday night he brought an estimated 2,000 supporters to the Ulster Hall in Belfast where they prayed together for deliverance from "the powers of darkness, the demon from the pits of hell".
They sang "The Sash my Father Wore" and "There'll Always be an Ulster", gave repeated standing ovations to Mr Paisley and his ally, Robert McCartney MP, and greeted mentions of the name of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble with cries of "Lundy" and "traitor". The battlelines were drawn, in other words, in a fight for the soul of Unionism.
Mr Paisley's approach was based upon tradition, both recent and ancient. His own tradition, seen repeatedly during the last three decades, is to oppose any moves in the direction of a compromise settlement.
But he and Mr McCartney both evoked the memory of Edward Carson, one of Unionism's most revered founding fathers, who in the same hall in 1912 declared the Protestants of Ulster ready to use "all means which may be found necessary" to oppose a united Ireland.
Mr McCartney endorsed Carson's words. Mr Paisley, meanwhile, recalled this it was in the same hall in 1886 that Lord Randolph Churchill declared: "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right." The two men, speaking as Carson did in front of a huge Union flag, accused the Government of trying to bring about Irish unity, calling on Mr Trimble to leave the talks and form a united Unionist front against the negotiations.
These appeals were not however couched in conciliatory terms; rather, they were accompanied by much personal abuse and scorn directed against Mr Trimble and his party. At one stage Mr Paisley referred to Mr Trimble's party as "yellow-bellied".
He described some of those involved in the talks as scallywags and dinosaurs, referring to one senior official as "a very dangerous rascal, one of those very uncivil civil servants who would sell their grandmother for an OBE". He named and attacked a business leader who has spoken out in favour of talks.
The criticisms drew thunderous applause, and occasionally foot-stomping, from an audience which seemed drawn largely drawn from the ranks of his party, the Democratic Unionists, and his church, the Free Presbyterians.
They announced the launch of a Unionist roadshow, with rallies to be held in towns and villages in the coming weeks to drum up support and increase pressure on the Ulster Unionists to pull out of the talks. The UUP is to be invited to take part in a committee and a large-scale Unionist convention.
They also set up a fund, launched with a donation of pounds 5,000 from Mr McCartney, to finance "a concerted, unified and professional campaign" to counter moves to break the Union.
Mr Trimble, speaking as the rally was taking place, appealed to Mr Paisley and Mr McCartney to join the Stormont talks and "stop stabbing in the back those of us who have the courage to face the enemies of peace and democracy". He added: "One sad aspect of politics today is the relentless negativity of a minority of Unionists. These prophets of doom say that participation in talks is useless. I reject such pessimism."
Opinion polls and other evidence suggest that a large majority of Unionists approve of participation in talks but that, as attendance at the rally indicates, a minority is deeply opposed to such negotiations. The Paisley- McCartney rallies will provide a focal point for such opposition in the months ahead.
Inside the talks yesterday things went surprisingly smoothly with Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists and other parties agreeing an order of business which should see start of actual negotiations next week.
Two Ulster Unionists sat across the table from Martin McGuinness and another Sinn Fein representative for the first meeting of the business committee. It recommended that each of the complex strands for negotiation should be launched on the same day, possibly Tuesday of next week.
The atmosphere was said to be constructive, one source commenting: "There was little posturing - nobody put up false obstacles, everybody genuinely wanted to get down to business."Reuse content