Dr Paisley's visit to Dublin

 

Yesterday's visit by the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party to Government Buildings in Dublin is a welcome development in the normalisation of political relations on this island.

And while a resolution of the difficulties preventing the reintroduction of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and a resumption of the Belfast Agreement did not emerge in the talks between the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, and the DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, progress was reported. The exercise is expected to inform the work of senior Irish and British officials preparing a discussion document for the Northern Ireland parties.

The request by Dr Paisley and his deputy, Mr Peter Robinson, for the Dublin meeting was designed, in part, to emphasise the similarity in attitude by both sides to sharing power in Government with parties linked to paramilitary organisations.

But it also served to ventilate the differences that exist between them in relation to the Belfast Agreement and the mechanisms required to bring about political stability, better North/South relations and lasting peace. It also provided a useful platform for the introduction of the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern, to the negotiating process.

The Irish and British Governments are particularly anxious to exploit the opportunity that emerged at Leeds Castle, last month, to bring about the final disarmament of the IRA and an end to its paramilitary activities. They are seeking assurances that if the IRA fulfils this commitment, then the DUP will sign up to sharing power with Sinn Féin and the SDLP in a new executive.

The situation is complicated by the DUP's insistence that it will not talk to Sinn Féin while the IRA remains an armed force and by its determination to secure changes in the operation of the Belfast Agreement that would, in the words of Mr Nigel Dodds, prevent nationalist ministers in a new executive from "doing their own thing". The DUP does not disguise the fact that its opposition to a joint voting arrangement for co-equal First and Deputy First Ministers is designed to avoid the DUP having to "put its hand up" in support of a Sinn Féin candidate.

Distrust between the various parties is intense, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP accusing the DUP of seeking to destroy the cross-community ethic that underpins the Belfast Agreement. They believe the DUP is seeking to shackle the powers of nationalist ministers in any new executive and to dilute North/South arrangements. In spite of that, the two governments believe the prize of IRA decommissioning must not be lost, provided the changes sought by the DUP involving the election and accountability of ministers and the powers of the Assembly can be accommodated without damaging the architecture of the agreement.

The endgame is in sight - but goodwill, political courage and determination will be required to complete the work.