David McKittrick: Even Ian Paisley has stopped saying 'Never'

Peter Hain, screwdrivers and spanners at the ready, is the latest in a series of Northern Ireland secretaries to attempt to put the pieces together. He has several things going for him. First, there is no din of war in the background to disturb the political work. Second, everybody has learnt a lot over the long years: it has been a tortuous but valuable education.

And third there are only two really crucial components now, that is the Rev Ian Paisley and the republican movement, encompassing Sinn Fein and the IRA. Furthermore, although no one imagines there will be a quick deal between them, many expect that they will eventually do the business. The question is when.

The major factor preventing a short-term deal is the unclear state of play within the IRA, which last year decommissioned tons of weaponry and announced it was ceasing its activities. But last week's official report, which was supposed to give the IRA a clean bill of health, instead said the organisation was still into large-scale criminality and other wrongdoing. It also said there was unconfirmed intelligence that IRA members had held on to some weaponry. This caused some dismay, though the author of a second official report made it clear he did not believe a word of this.

The net result was not a satisfying all-clear for the IRA but confusion. London and Dublin argue that, whatever misty-grey areas remain, huge progress has been made and a serviceable basis established for the fresh talks. Ian Paisley is involved in the new talks, but he has made it clear that he will not be signing up to any deal with republicans until all remaining pockets of mist have been dispelled and the IRA has finally gone out of business.

The Government is urging him to move as quickly as possible and attempting to apply leverage by talking of closer links with Dublin, reduced political monies and a tightening of public expenditure. His party scoffs at these: they are indeed pressure points, but they are far outweighed by the unchallenged Paisleyite pre-eminence within Unionism. Having decimated David Trimble's party, he stands unchallenged as the voice of the Ulster Protestant.

He holds in fact what might be called a Unionist veto, if not over the terms of an eventual settlement then at least over its timing. Why, Paisley people ask, should they move now? Republicans have come a long way, they concede - so why not wait until they have gone all the way, and become completely political?

The strength of this Paisley position is that it reflects the opinion of the ordinary Prod in the street. The Government may fret over the continuation of a political vacuum, but the vast majority of grass-roots Unionists are losing no sleep whatever over the absence of devolution.

A new deal would inevitably put Sinn Fein leaders such as Martin McGuinness back into ministerial office. Mr Paisley's people would actually have a job on their hands persuading their supporters this would be a good thing. So his party is in a remarkably comfortable position. It has the option of going into government, say next year, but it also has the option of playing it even longer and letting everyone else sweat it out. In recent years it used to be said that Mr Paisley's health was poor - and for a while he certainly looked terrible. But, although almost 80, he has staged a near-miraculous recovery.

A long game does not suit London, Dublin or indeed Sinn Fein, all of which are anxious to make early progress. Yet the chances are that the combined efforts of all of them will not be enough to budge Mr Paisley from his stance, that he will move only when the time and circumstances are exactly right. That means waiting months for more official reports until finally it is unequivocally stated that the IRA has gone away and that republicans have completed their long journey from terrorism.

Still the present Paisley stance is progress of a kind, certainly when measured against a long career of almost unremitting negativity. He made his name by saying no, once famously declaiming: "Never, never, never." His new line is: not yet.