The summit meeting at St Andrews in Scotland has been described as unique by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
They hope it will result in the restoration of the power-sharing executive by November 24 — a deadline both governments are insisting on.
Before this day is out we may know whether things are about to change utterly in Northern Ireland — or whether it’s time to get the drawing board out again.
Much has been made of DUP leader Ian Paisley’s meeting with the Catholic Primate, Archbishop Sean Brady, and, in the context of Northern Ireland, it was truly historic.
In the context of Ian Paisley, it was nothing less than astounding — almost as big a paradox as he is.
Remember, it is not so very long ago since he was ejected from the European Parliament for heckling Pope John Paul II. His congregation is more used to hearing him describe the ‘Church of Rome’ in terms you would not expect from somebody who claims to be a clergyman, never mind from the pulpit.
So, it must have come as more than a culture shock to his congregation to realise that he actually shook hands with the archbishop and had an apparently pleasant meeting with him.
The question is, can he encourage interdominational dialogue between nationalists and loyalists to the extent of them having a pint together, or is that too much to ask?
More importantly, can he now convince his followers that the Catholic Church isn’t all he brainwashed them to believe for decades, and will he now start singing from a different hymn sheet?
Even more importantly, does he want to sit down with the devil — in their eyes — because they identify all nationalists as being Catholics.
We must wait and see, but I don’t think he’ll be buying a new hymn book yet.
As far as Bertie Ahern is concerned, the Scottish meeting is “crucial” to Northern Ireland ultimately governing itself without direct rule from London.
Tony Blair said it’s make-your-mind-up time and Northern Secretary Peter Hain was adamant there would be a positive outcome — not 99%, but 100% — and there was no question of the talks going beyond November 24. If that happens, the parties will be on their own. The shutters will go up permanently and the Assembly members will be out of a job, at least a well-paid day job.
Sinn Féin said there wouldn’t be any movement on policing without a hint from Ian Paisley. He said there wouldn’t be any movement on power-sharing unless Sinn Féin moved first on policing.
There can be no doubt that both Sinn Féin, the biggest nationalist party, and the DUP, the biggest unionist party, are pivotal to any arrangement that will settle things in the North.
But Sinn Féin is the more enthusiastic of the two because it has more to gain. The fact that the DUP would gain the basic right to be involved in self-government is a matter of indifference to them.
There are basically two substantive issues left to be ironed out: Sinn Féin’s acceptance of policing, and the DUP’s acceptance of power-sharing.
It is a lopsided equation.
Gerry Adams has acknowledged that if a party wants to be part of a power-sharing government, it must positively support the agencies of law and order. In other words, the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
There is no such acknowledgement on the part of the DUP with regard to power-sharing. Hitherto, it’s been their position that direct rule from London is the lesser of two evils. At least it keeps Sinn Féin out of having a say in the governance of the North.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended for four years, ever since direct rule was imposed because of allegations of a republican spy ring at Stormont, although the ensuing court case collapsed.
In the interim, the North has been the responsibility of the House of Commons, where the DUP sits, but Sinn Féin does not for ideological reasons.
Therefore, Ian Paisley’s parliamentary influence is a direct one.
WHETHER his larynx will allow him sing a tune other than ‘Ulster says No’ — at least unionist Ulster — before the day is out remains to be seen, but his overture in Scotland wasn’t very encouraging.
On day one he told the press that even if Sinn Féin embraced policing, they would have to give information to the police about terrorist crimes and to hand back their “ill-gotten gains”.
According to the International Monitoring Commission (IMC), the IRA has changed “radically” and some of its most important structures have been dismantled.
As far as the IMC is concerned, the IRA does not want to go back to violence and, more importantly, it no longer has the capacity to mount a sustained campaign.
On the other hand, the IMC said criminality and paramilitary activities were still widespread among loyalists, despite the fact that senior members in the UDA and the UVF were trying to clean up their organisations. Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain was absolutely right when he said there was an astonishing change in the attitude of the IRA.
“Is there now a security threat from the IRA? The answer’s no”, he stated.
Incredibly, Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP had his party taking the credit for this sea-change in the IRA.
He said the development — that the IRA was no longer a security threat — was a product of DUP endeavours.
The report by the IMC, which is a completely independent body, was sufficient indication to Tony Blair that the conflict was over — but not for the DUP.
As far as Ian Paisley is concerned, the IMC report on the IRA is worth nothing, never mind that both governments are convinced of its accuracy.
Of course, he never had much time either for the international decommissioning body. Basically, he never had much time for anybody who did not confirm his own prejudices.
There is a certain amount of speculation that Gerry Adams will call an árdfheis before the November deadline, and while that is possible there is no way that endorsing the PSNI could be made palatable for quite a few of the party’s members.
The posturing by Mr Paisley and some of his senior colleagues has not helped.
Mr Ahern told his cabinet colleagues that a deal on power-sharing was never more feasible, and that the mood on the ground was very good. More realistically, he also wants a clear outcome which will open the way for the restoration of power-sharing by the famous deadline.
I sincerely hope the mood at St Andrews is better than that between himself and the PDs for the past fortnight, and that any agreement that may emanate from there will be more lasting.