Paisley gets to say yes, again

The recent talks at St Andrews were a logistical nightmare for the British government. They were in the Fairmount Hotel. The Fairmount Hotel is big. It is modern. Las Vegas-sized. It is close to the Scottish coastline. During the recent talks it was also host to golfers, American families, a huge amount of mostly eastern European waiters and waitresses and a multitude of cops on the lookout for al Qaida.

The last and only time I was in Scotland before this was to speak at a public meeting in Glasgow. The local Orangemen objected and besieged the venue. A convoy of Glaswegian peelers escorted me to the airport at high speed. I had a distinct sense that I was being run out of town.

At the Fairmount Hotel the cops were happy to see us. Many of them spoke like Inspector Taggart. I liked that. They were very friendly. I like the Scottish accent. Usually I am exposed to its exponents in a limited way. At St Andrews the acoustics at all the security points were decidedly Billy Connolly-like. All och ayes and gid neichs.

The media were kept out of the hotel. For once I felt sorry for them. The first night of the talks was really stormy and the hacks were open to the elements in a three-sided marquee. The wind was whipping in from the sea behind them and the rain was teeming down. After we made representations, their facility was upgraded, but by then – the following day – the sun was out and the storm had passed.

Most of the participating parties did not stay at the Fairmount. They were farmed out to other hotels. But there was only a limited number of motor vehicles to ferry them back and forth. The drivers were nearly as ill-treated as the media. After one particular wee-hours-of-the-morning session our driver confided that after dropping us off, he still had a 40-minute trip to his boarding house. Given that we were only a few hours off dawn and our next engagement, the guy wasn't going to get much shuteye. Despite this, he gallantly declined my invitation for him to sleep at the bottom of Martin McGuinness's bed.

The most exciting thing to happen in the first period of the discussions was that the English team was beaten in a soccer game. Tony Blair was scundered. Everyone else was very pleased. I'm a bit like Paidí Ó Sé. Níl suim agam i sacair. But I did take pleasure from the English keeper's mistake. One of the waiters was Croatian. He also took pleasure from his country's victory. The goal and the keeper's moment of mortification was played and replayed constantly on the large plasma television in the dining room. The parties gathered there for buffet lunches and dinners. No wine. Maybe that was in deference to Ian Paisley's abstemious ways. If so, if gives a different slant to his demand that the Shinners take the pledge!

The waiter from Croatia was also bemused to see the news bulletins. There was Ian Paisley up on the screen. He and the English goalkeeper dominated the broadcasts. And there was the same Ian Paisley tucking into a feed of spuds and veg. And the rest of us as well. Martin McGuinness, unlike me and Paidi O Sé, has a big interest in soccer. He and Tony Blair and the Croatian waiter. They discussed the English defeat ad nauseum. He and Bertie were also pleased for Steve Staunton. So was I.

Anyway, somewhere somehow at the end of all this Ian Paisley got to say yes. Ok, I know it was a conditional sort of a yes. And I know he has in a sort of a way wobbled a bit since then. But it was a yes. I'm glad I was there to witness it.

He was in good form throughout the proceedings. I believe the English goalkeeper's mistake had that effect on all of us. It was also Friday the 13th, the 50th wedding anniversary for Ian and his bride Eileen. That is a big achievement. For both of them. At the second and last of the plenaries, the Taoiseach and Tony Blair presented Ian and Eileen with two little momentos. The English one was in a bag so we don't know what it was. Bertie's was in clear view. It was, very appropriately, a wooden bowl carved from a tree which stood at the site of the Battle of the Boyne.

It was a nice moment. Everyone was delighted. Even the Shinners. We all applauded. Bob McCartney dissented. "A sweetener!" he yelled in disgust.

Ian Paisley made a short but very gracious acceptance speech. He also got his photo taken shaking hands with Bertie. Another first.

But the biggie was at his press conference. Afterwards a cynical Ulster Unionist mutterered, "That's only the second time he ever said yes. The other time was 50 years ago with Eileen."

"Aren't you pleased?" I asked.

"Aye," he replied. "Now Ian is where David Trimble was."

And we left it there.

We had missed our flight but courtesy of her majesty's government we headed for an RAF airport and a chartered aircraft. Martin McGuinness got very nostalgic. "Thirty five years ago we landed in an RAF airport just like this for our first talk with the Brits," he recalled.

"Aye," I said, "I remember."