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Fionnan Sheahan: A cunning plan to starve the negotiators into submission

MICHEAL Martin was certainly enthusiastic to get in his first all-night session of negotiations.

The Foreign Affairs Minister seemed to be gagging for the talks in Hillsborough Castle to go through to dawn when he said it was the Government's intention "to go through the night".

Mr Martin has had a busy time since moving into Iveagh House. He had the clean-up after the first Lisbon Treaty referendum, the success of Lisbon II and the kidnap and release of Sharon Cummins.

What is the point in being the foreign affairs minister though, if you have never participated in all-night, make-or-break, crisis talks with the future of Northern Ireland's fragile political process hanging in the balance.

While nothing will match the epic negotiations at Castle Buildings in Stormont for the Good Friday Agreement, veterans reminisced and drew comparisons with the knife-edge talks in Leeds Castle in Kent and St Andrews in Scotland in recent years.

However, the first day of talks wrapped up at 3am and resumed at about 10am, with everybody getting a relatively solid night's sleep.

Brian Cowen and Micheal Martin had made an unexpected trip to Belfast on Monday, when the Northern Executive looked like breaking down altogether.

Mr Cowen's entourage always brings an emergency spare shirt and toilet bag for the Taoiseach -- just in case.

And the lads in the North are made of tough stuff and seem ready to dig in for a week of intense negotiations, if necessary.

Dismissing suggestions that Sinn Fein and the DUP may never be able to work together again, Peter Robinson spoke of "hard skins and tough stomachs". After his own experiences of the past month, Mr Robinson's skin must be as hard as a crocodile and his stomach capable of consuming 10 chicken vindaloos.

The resumption of talks saw Mr Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown attempting to build a deal.

Various players in Northern politics insisted on also being included in the process, rather than the DUP and Sinn Fein alone dominating proceedings.

And so, all the parties got in on the act, with Mr Cowen and Mr Brown discussing matters with everybody and circulating a draft document, before going for round-table talks.

Throughout the day, amendments and changes to the document were made, with papers going back and forth between all the different parties.

The main business came from an early evening meeting between Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Mr Robinson.

They knew the draft document would be leaked if the talks collapsed.

And if there appeared to the outside world to be enough in the draft deal to keep all sides happy, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be blamed for being unreasonable.

A compromise was in the offing on moving policing powers from London to Belfast, with a change in how contentious parade routes are resolved.

A greater degree of direct consultation between parade organisers and local communities would be the new formula.

Across the day, the apparent deadline for the conclusion of the talks shifted.

What was quite clear though was Gordon Brown's need to get back to Westminster today.

The British economy was finally out of recession but the prime minister was stuck inside Hillsborough Castle as his economic record came under attack.

At tea-time, Mr Martin and Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward were back out committing to go the distance.

A second shot at an all-night session was in the offing. The SDLP negotiating team were spotted with what looked suspiciously like bags of Chinese takeaways.

The Ulster Unionist Party delegation popped across the road from the castle to get some food in 'The Plough Inn', a charming hostelry which serves a fine bacon and cabbage.

But before the group, including party leader Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey had time to tuck in, they were called back to the castle for the start of the plenary meeting.

Mr Cowen and Mr Brown obviously had a cunning plan: they were going to starve the negotiators into submission.

Irish Independent