The leaders of Northern Ireland’s major Protestant and Catholic parties, sitting side by side for the first time in history, announced a breakthrough deal Monday to forge a power-sharing administration May 8.
The agreement followed 4½ years of deadlock and unprecedented face-to-face negotiations between the British Protestants of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and the Irish Catholics of Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein.
The two foes — who for years negotiated only via third parties at Paisley’s insistence — sat beside each other at a table in the main dining room in Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast, largely avoiding eye contact. Officials on both sides said they did not shake hands.
“After a long and difficult time in our province, I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead,” said Paisley, 80, whose party previously boycotted contact with Sinn Fein because of its links to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
“We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children,” Paisley said.
“In looking to that future, we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, now emerging,” Paisley said. “We owe it to them to craft the best possible future.”
Adams, 58, a reputed veteran IRA commander, said Monday’s accord “marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island.”
He said Protestants and Catholics had been in conflict in northeast Ireland for centuries. “Now there’s a new start, with the help of God,” he said.
Both Adams and Paisley said they and their deputies would begin immediate negotiations on forging a joint platform for government. “There is important preparatory work to be carried out so that ministers can hit the ground running,” Paisley said.
Britain, which had long billed Monday as its “unbreakable” deadline for power-sharing to begin or for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be dissolved, signaled it would introduce an emergency bill to be rushed through both houses of Parliament in London by Tuesday.
This bill would permit the assembly — the 108-member legislature that is supposed to elect a 12-member administration — to keep operating through a new May 8 deadline.
UK, Irish leaders hail pact
The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, said the Sinn Fein-Democratic Unionist pact was the welcome culmination of their governments’ close cooperation on Northern Ireland since 1997.
“Everything we have done over the last 10 years has been a preparation for this moment,” Blair said in London.
In Dublin, Ahern said all players in the often tortuous peace process can “move forward from today in an entirely new spirit and with every expectation of success.” Ahern said he and Blair were “determined to ensure that the final steps of the peace process are successfully completed.”
The Democratic Unionists boycotted the negotiations that produced Northern Ireland’s landmark Good Friday peace accord of 1998 because Britain permitted Sinn Fein to take part. The Democratic Unionists did take part in Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing government of 1999-2002, but refused to attend Cabinet meetings because Sinn Fein ministers were present.
Since becoming Northern Ireland’s most popular party in the 2003 assembly election, the Democratic Unionists have insisted on using Britain and other third parties to pass messages to Sinn Fein. Until now, Paisley’s only known exchanges with Adams have come during assembly debates.
On Saturday, Democratic Unionist leaders formally rejected the Monday deadline for a deal but said they would be ready to work with Sinn Fein in May — the first time that Paisley has committed to a target date at all.
Power-sharing was the central goal of the Good Friday pact. The last coalition collapsed in October 2002 amid chronic arguments between Protestants and Sinn Fein over the future of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which in 2005 disarmed and renounced violence.