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7 October 2004 Edition

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DUP in Dublin

Last week, DUP leader Ian Paisley, accompanied by his deputy Peter Robinson, travelled to Dublin to meet the 26-County Government. It had been a moment the media had been waiting for and they reported it with relish.

For the Irish News, the meeting was "strangely disconcerting". Five years ago, said the Irish News, the prospect of such a meeting going ahead would have been "on a par with finding a copy of 'The rough guide to the Vatican' by Ian Paisley on the shelves".

For the Belfast Newsletter, the meeting was "symbolic" if "unthinkable a few years ago". "During an historic meeting in Dublin, the DUP leader extended the hand of friendship to the Irish Premier" on the basis of "good neighbours" who could "work together on matters of mutual interest and benefit".

But it was left to the columnists North and South to ponder the imponderables of the DUP's past and present. For Tom McGurk, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, "the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of the last tribe of traditional unionism", make "a bizarre couple". "Together they have inspected all the windmills and still seem to wondering quite what to do," says McGurk.

For Roy Garland, Paisley has come a long way "from proclaiming 'No peace with Rome 'til Rome makes peace with God'". But for those who find Paisley's ideological inconsistencies difficult to reconcile with his ability to operate as a politician, Garland reminds us of Paisley's history within the European Parliament.

Based on the Treaty of Rome, the EEC was branded by the DUP leader as "the Beast of Revelation", a Catholic plot seeking to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire. But Paisley was elected as an MEP in 1979 and served as a member for almost 25 years.

"We have come here as the voice of unionism to meet with Mr Ahern at a time of growing confidence in the unionist community," Paisley told the media.

"Following on from the Leeds Castle talks, we pledged that we would continue discussions on the political institutions and the necessity to bring about changes to them.

"We are working towards a settlement for all the people of Northern Ireland and in so doing we wish to build a relationship with our neighbour that is practically based rather than politically motivated. No one has anything to fear from an accountable North South relationship."

Ulster Unionists and SDLP sulk

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP have threatened to refuse their Ministries. Reg Empey of the UUP said the party was considering not taking Ministries as an option if the DUP proposal to undermine the committee system was pursued.

Comments by Ahern that the DUP had accepted the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement spurred senior UUP MLA Dermot Nesbitt to express surprise. "If the DUP have accepted the fundamentals of the Belfast Agreement, this is welcome news indeed. It also begs the question as to what they have been shouting about for the last six years," said Nesbitt.

A senior SDLP source said his party was considering boycotting the administration and going into opposition if the two governments make concessions to the DUP that would undermine cross-border institutions and power sharing.

Seán Farren of the SDLP said his party was very anxious to achieve an early restoration of the institutions. "If the DUP want to join us in this enterprise they must stop the pretence that the Agreement must be re written," he said.

Work in progress

Describing the talks as "work in progress", Sinn Féin said that party was still trying to find agreement. "This is a shared objective we have with the Irish government," said a party spokesperson.

"Our worry is the record of the two governments over the last six years. Too often they tend to interpret the agreement in ways that suit the needs of unionism, as opposed to the needs of the Agreement.

"This time there is no possibility of Sinn Féin acquiescing or accepting that this can be done, because the changes being sought do fundamentally affect the agreement and would affect the way in which the institutions would function."

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