LONDON - The Rev. Ian Paisley, the fire-and-brimstone preacher and politician admired by many Protestants in Northern Ireland and loathed by many Catholics, has a well-known nickname: Dr. No.
He is the person who has controlled Protestant negotiations - and non-negotiations - in Northern Ireland virtually since the decades of violence began, a 78-year-old lightning rod who has rejected every peace deal offered, a man who has broadly referred to Catholics as dogs and who once was wrestled out of the European Parliament for heckling the pope. (Yelling that John Paul II was the Antichrist, Paisley was dragged from the chamber.)
He has called fellow Protestant leaders who have sought a peace deal "traitors." He once vowed he would never negotiate a peace settlement with his sworn enemy, the Irish Republican Army. Whatever terms they could offer, he said, the answer would be no.
Now, though, with Paisley in questionable health and Northern Ireland thriving with six years of relative peace, Dr. No has become Dr. Maybe. Incredibly, given the region's history and the personalization of the conflict, Paisley could soon become first minister of Northern Ireland, effectively the head of government, sharing power with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA.
That relative peace was gained with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but in a deal hard-line Protestants and Catholics were not happy with and which, at various times, has threatened to unravel.
In talks now under way, the two sides are within one issue of an accord that would have the blessing of virtually the entire political spectrum on both sides, thereby reaching a peace not only codified but embraced in the type of agreement that many had long ago given up on.
And even many people who have spent decades watching promising peace deals collapse believe that Paisley may finally agree to an accord with Sinn Fein, perhaps as soon as this week.
That would put Northern Ireland back on the path to limited autonomy and toward a final Protestant-Catholic power-sharing agreement, as called for in the Good Friday Agreement, sometimes called the Belfast Agreement. That pact (also opposed by Paisley) has brought an end to murder campaigns and bombing attacks in Britain and ushered in peace to Northern Ireland.
Together, the Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries are blamed for some 3,600 deaths.
"I'm confident he can make a deal, will make a deal and must make a deal," said Mairtin O Muilleoir, author in Belfast and a former city councilor with Sinn Fein.
"We're in a different universe today. We have peace, the economy is buoyant, the IRA is retiring - and I think he's getting the message that there will be peace with or without him."
Talks have been going off and on for months, suspended this month when the two sides could not agree on how to verify the IRA's "decommissioning," the destruction of its weapons.
To the surprise of nobody, Paisley made that issue more difficult, to say the least, with words as incendiary as ever.
During negotiations he called the IRA "bloodthirsty monsters" and said no deal would be agreed to unless the paramilitary organization agreed to the "humiliation" of having the destruction of its weapons photographed.
The IRA refused, but agreed to let Protestant and Catholic clergy monitor the decommissioning. To agree to terms that Paisley himself has defined as humiliating, the IRA argues, would amount to public surrender.
"Once he used those words, the chances of getting there were sharply reduced," said Paul Bew, a professor of Irish politics at Queen's University in Belfast. "He's never been a man who has negotiated before and he's shown that."
Paisley has long been the ultimate Orangeman, as some Protestants are known. In the eyes of his supporters, he has bravely fought - at times supporting Protestant paramilitary groups - for the right of Protestants and Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Now stooped just a bit from age and recovering from an undisclosed illness that sidelined him for most of the summer, he nevertheless remains an imposing figure and by far the most important person involved in the negotiations.
He was born in 1926, the son of a Baptist minister, and gave his first sermon at 16, establishing himself with a huge physical frame and booming voice. In the early 1950s, he helped establish the Free Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, and in 1972 formed his own Democratic Unionist Party after disputes with fellow Protestants in the Ulster Union Party, whom he found too willing to compromise.
Paisley did not return phone messages for comment for this article.
In 1998, the Ulster unionists, led by David Trimble, negotiated the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which established a power-sharing assembly and executive. Trimble's party and the SDLP were seen as moderate, compared with Paisley's DUP, and Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams.
That arrangement was suspended in 2002 over allegations Sinn Fein was involved in intelligence gathering at the Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament, on behalf of the IRA. Last year, the hard-liners from both sides won power, making Paisley and Adams the primary voices at the bargaining table - although Paisley still refuses to speak directly to anybody from Sinn Fein.
The two parties are negotiating through Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland.
A lot has changed in Northern Ireland over the past years that has weakened Paisley's hand significantly.
Belfast, the heart of Northern Ireland and once the battlefield where the troubles were most commonly fought, has modernized.
A modern, glass Waterfront Hall has been built downtown, with a five-star hotel. Nightlife has returned to Belfast's streets, and companies once hesitant to set up shop there have moved in. Unemployment is now close to the British average.
According to polls, two-thirds of Protestants and half of Catholics are indifferent about whether the power-sharing agreement returns.
But Blair, who has been directly involved in the talks, said that while the lack of a final agreement will not immediately threaten the peace, in the longer term any lingering disputes could unravel agreements already made.
But, he added, allowing the deal to go unfinished could, eventually, turn the clock back.
Under rules of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the party with the most seats selects the first minister. That is Paisley's party. The deputy first minister would come from the second-largest party, now Sinn Fein.
"Some people would have said a few years ago that an arrangement like this would be impossible," said Peter Weir, an assemblyman from Paisley's DUP. "Other people would call it a miracle."
People who know Paisley see his insistence on photographing the IRA's destruction of its weapons a shrewd political move that he might eventually back away from.
This, after all, is a man who criticized the Good Friday Agreement and who needs to get his hard-core constituency to support any agreement he might make.
"I'm absolutely certain this is a cold calculation by him," said Bew, the Queen's University professor. "He needs to sell a deal to his own people, and the best way to do that is to be able to say, 'See, we got them on their knees.'
"Remember, he has survived a very long time," Bew added. "He hasn't done that without sharp political instincts. Now we'll see if he has what else is needed, the ability to actually make a deal."