Another Northern Ireland deadline has come and gone and the elastic has been stretched even further; when will it snap? Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern say that hugely important progress has been made; their aides suggest that a final agreement between Ian Paisley's Protestants and Gerry Adams' Catholics might still be reached before Christmas. If it is not, there will probably be a stop on further talks until Britain's general election, expected in May, has taken place.
The most remarkable aspect of the past week has been the publication by the two governments of the draft of the agreement they had expected would be reached. This must be unprecedented in negotiations of this delicacy and presumably reflected the frustration of the two prime ministers that they had got so far, only to be foiled at the last moment. At least the public now knows what can be achieved if only the principals would be more flexible. Ian Paisley's behaviour has been unacceptable in a serious politician and has given the IRA the opportunity to show its customary obstinacy. Paisley's refusal to recognise Adams or even to pass the time of the day with him is ludicrous and bodes ill for the power-sharing executive when it eventually comes into existence. How can a government function when its principal ministers do not speak to each other?
The most significant gesture made by Britain in recent talks has been to drop its right to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly, as it has twice done since it was created. So, however dysfunctional the Executive proves to be, Britain would have no right to intervene. Given the hostility between Paisley and Adams this may be a dangerous risk to take.