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Sam Smyth: Three days on, the DUP and SF still won't budge

BRIAN Cowen had spent nearly 72 hours on a political bender -- a three-day event at Hillsborough Castle that failed to produce a winner or even a convincing reason for its failure.

Yet the Taoiseach rejected any suggestion that it had been a waste of time -- and the British prime minister was not for pointing fingers of blame at anyone.

Mr Cowen said the talks had been "painstaking" -- presumably a euphemism for sleep-deprivation and torture -- and dismissed the suggestion that it had "just been three days of process".

Gordon Brown was adamant that he would not be apportioning blame to "any party or organisation" and said: "We have devolution, but we have incomplete devolution."

At 4pm yesterday, Mr Cowen and Mr Brown were in line to be early nominees if next year's Nobel Prizes include a category for diplomatic doublespeak.

Both of them looked as if they would have said almost anything to get away from talks that were really a showdown between two political parties.

But it was their presence that elevated another bare-knuckle row between the DUP and Sinn Fein to a two-prime-minister, constitutional crisis.

Exasperated at the DUP's continuing refusal to devolve policing and justice, it was Sinn Fein who pressed the emergency button last weekend, when they called for Mr Cowen and Mr Brown to end the stalemate.

Although they napped in separate rooms in Hillsborough Castle, the Taoiseach and the prime minister spent all their waking hours together in a room with officials, meeting delegations from the parties.

There were just two issues: when the DUP would agree to the devolution of policing and justice from London to Belfast and whether Sinn Fein would agree to changes in how loyalist parades would be allowed and routed.

Neither issue means much to anyone in the North but the party zealots of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The Robinson affair, with its financial and sexual implications, and the allegations of covering up sex abuse that hang heavily over Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein are still the major topics for social chit-chat.

On Tuesday, the DUP's Sammy Wilson was the face of a reasonable politician who was open to any suggestion, while Peter Robinson presented himself as ready to do business without any preconditions.

Inside Hillsborough Castle, the DUP stuck to their bottom line and refused to concede an early date for the devolution of police and justice.

Every permutation of every proposed compromise and suggestion was typed up and circulated as possibilities by the officials. And every time agreement was apparently tantalisingly close, yet another reason was conjured up to stall it.

Round-table talks with all the parties gave an appearance of thoroughness but in the end, as in the beginning, only the DUP and Sinn Fein have vetoes.

When the talks broke up just after 4pm, Martin McGuinness said he was "deeply disappointed" and he really looked as if he meant it.

Robinson looked rather less disappointed, however, and said he could only sign off on a deal that would satisfy the unionist people of Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward step into their bosses' shoes to oversee the talks for the next couple of days.

Brown went off to deal with problems of tribesmen in the Yemen and Afghanistan, and the Taoiseach to nurse his ailing economy and creaking coalition in Dublin.

The clansmen have a couple of days to pull a rabbit out of a hat in Hillsborough, in order to prevent an election that neither tribe in the North wants.

If they manage to cobble something together by the weekend, both the DUP and Sinn Fein will be declaring themselves the winner.

Irish Independent