Northern Ireland: It’s not over ’til it’s over

The weekend's optimism in Northern Ireland has dissipated. DUP sources have said their assembly party is not ready to accept a deal and they won't be pressured.

Is a deal on the devolution of policing and justice about to be brokered in Belfast?

After the passing of Friday’s deadline, set by Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen as the date by which all parties should reach a deal or face having one imposed by the two governments, the weekend saw negotiations continue at Hillsborough Castle, with six straight days of talks, totalling 100 hours.

Speaking on Saturday as talks broke up for a day off, Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward was clear in his assertion that “Considerable progress has been made”. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness struck an equally optimistic note on Sunday, concluding:

“I now hope we have a basis upon which nationalists, republicans, unionists and loyalists will move forward together on the basis of partnership and equality.”

He continued that failure was not a “realistic or viable path”. DUP Environment Minister, Edwin Poots was equally optimistic:

“The talks were looking at tidying up some things tonight and there is some work to be done on Monday.

“There is considerable advancement. I said previously there would have to be certainty and clarity and there would appear to be greater certainty and clarity.”

Such was the optimism that it was reported that Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown were on stand by to return to Belfast at short notice to seal a deal. Indeed, the Taoiseach cancelled a schedule meeting in Madrid with the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Zapatero in order to keep in contact with developments north of the border.

Such preparations may, however, be slightly premature with the BBC reporting DUP sources saying their assembly party was not yet ready to accept a deal. The DUP’s reluctance came as the party’s Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson used an article in The Newsletter to declare:

“We will not be pressured into an agreement to provide the press with a headline, pander to a vociferous public minority or just to please the Prime Minister.”

What is more, DUP MP and MLA, Gregory Campbell – known to be sceptical of a quick transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont – has made clear his view that an agreement at Hillsborough would not seal the deal, without a thorough and proper consultation with the people of Northern Ireland.

Negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein are likely to convene again. The developments over the past few days, however, should act as a warning to those following events in Northern Ireland. It isn’t over until a deal is signed, sealed and delivered, however positive things might feel.

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