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Volte-face 'prompted by Ahern meeting'

AN ASSEMBLY member has said he believes Ian Paisley's decision to go into government with Sinn Féin can be traced to the moment Bertie Ahern presented the then DUP leader and his wife with a gift to mark their wedding anniversary.

The anti-agreement 'Dr No' underwent what many regard as a Damascene conversion when he agreed to form a power-sharing executive with his long-time republican adversaries in 2007.

In the months afterwards, he also developed a surprisingly warm relationship with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness.

The reason for the former DUP leader's volte-face has been a source of much speculation, with some observers suggesting a serious illness in 2004 was a factor.

John Dallat, who was part of the SDLP's negotiating team at the St Andrews talks two years later, believes a gift from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern prompted the former first minister -- and his wife Eileen -- to change their minds.

"The talks were going nowhere and we were all set to return home from St Andrews when the taoiseach presented the Paisleys with a piece of bog oak to mark their 50th wedding anniversary," he recalled.

"When presenting the piece of highly polished, spherical-shaped sculpture, Bertie said it had been carved out of a piece of oak recovered from the River Boyne -- I can still see the radiance on the couple's faces."

According to Mr Dallat, it was at that point that both Paisleys decided the talks must be saved.

"There were no cameras, no media, just Bertie and them and the rest of us watching on as they melted," he said.

"Afterwards Paisley called for cameras to record this mind-changing event."

After the presentation the talks delegates retired for the night, expecting to return home in the morning with no agreement. However, next morning they were told there would be a further round of negotiations.

"I have no doubt the bog oak did the trick and the man responsible was wee Bertie," said Mr Dallat.

"The taoiseach had the lethal weapon that melted both Ian and Eileen -- after that Robinson was told to get on with it."

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