Belfast Telegraph

Devolution of policing: Dare we ask it in Ulster, but where’s the white smoke?

By Lise Hand

The media were put on red alert from early doors yesterday morning. This is it. Today's the Day.

After a prodigious and prolonged yakfest which saw a new hole appear in the ozone layer over Belfast due to the high level of emissions from Stormont and Hillsborough Castle, the end was — finally, thanks-be-to-Jesus-Mary-and-all-the-saints — nigh.

There had been false dawns before, only to see some unforeseen Sinn Fein soother or DUP dummy flung out of the cot at the eleventh hour. But now, on the first day of spring, harmony was blooming like little crocuses.

Government officials from both North and South who had been entombed in small rooms for a solid week during negotiations, gave fervent thanks and hoped they might get to see their families again some day soon. And the gathering human rights campaign to Free the Hillsborough Two was disbanded — Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward have been imprisoned in the castle for days on end, emerging ashen-faced from time to time to offer morsels of optimism to the gaggle of press keeping bored vigil outside the gates.

But word went out that the deal was in the bag. The job was Oxo, the green and orange pencils were being sharpened so the heads of the two political tribes could sign on the dotted line.

So once again the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister cleared their diaries in anticipation of travelling northwards to hand-hold the mutinous MLAs as they inched their way towards agreement on the stalled issues of devolution of policing and justice powers. And Brian had quite a high-powered lunch organised — he was off to Madrid for a pow-wow with Spanish Prime Minister Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. But he had to send his regrets. He was off to Belfast for the Big Deal. He had his bag already packed with spare shirt and smalls — presumably in the interests of impartiality, the Taoiseach sports Paisley underwear when he goes North.

Therefore it was with a sense of wary anticipation that all interested parties assembled in Stormont yesterday morning for what would surely be the final, brief dot-the-Is and cross-the-Ts meeting before the Bat signal was sent up over Hillsborough to summon Brian and Gordon to the finish line.

But then time started ticking by. Lunchtime came and went, as the media cooled their heels and dithered between Stormont and Hillsborough. Back in Dublin, the Taoiseach waited and waited.

Darkness fell and the Press fell into a self-pitying funk. Was there to be no end to the talking?

And then at 5pm a small group from Sinn Fein materialised through a side-door and strolled over to the microphone. A relaxed-looking Gerry Kelly was surrounded by a contingent of his compadres from south of the border — party vice-president and former MEP Mary-Lou McDonald, Kerry North TD Martin Ferris and Donegal South TD Pearse Doherty.

There was no white smoke — it was more of a light grey colour. They were still talking, and how. “We met the DUP early this morning, we adjourned that meeting for to go off and see our respective parties and talk to them,” he explained, as everyone tried to follow the torturous trail of talks. “And we were to come together after those meetings over some issues to conclude on, and we're still at that point,” he added. Just to keep things clear.

It wasn't good news, but it wasn't entirely bad either. And the vigil continued. Just before the stroke of 6pm, a cavalcade of DUPs swept down the grand central staircase like a posse of pinstriped Scarlett O'Haras in Tara.

At the head of the cavalcade was a breezy-looking Peter Robinson. And just to reinforce the message that the prodigal son has been allowed off the naughty step in the wake of recent colourful revelations, the party's most famous elder, Ian Paisley stepped out of the crowd to walk the last few co-ordinated steps at Peter's shoulder.

Peter wouldn't take any questions, but he made all sorts of encouraging noises in his short statement. The DUP were “encouraged by the progress” and “we would intend tonight to be meeting with the government and the other parties, and we will do that with all due diligence,” he vowed.

But as night closed in, everyone was convinced of one thing.

Today's the day. Definitely.

Lise Hand is a columnist with the Irish Independent

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