"We all saw something today that people never, ever thought would happen," said British Secretary of State Peter Hain, who expects to hand power May 8 to a coalition led by the polar opposites of provincial politics: Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein.
Paisley, a Protestant evangelist who for decades sought to thwart compromise with Roman Catholics, sat at a table beside Adams, a reputed Irish Republican Army veteran whom Paisley long denounced as a "man of blood." Throughout the tortuous 14-year course of Northern Ireland's peace process, Paisley had never before agreed to negotiate directly with Adams.
Their agreement, after barely an hour of discussions in the lawmakers' dining hall in Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast, called for Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists to work directly together on a detailed program for government.
Britain, in turn, promised to pass emergency legislation Tuesday that would extend its deadline for a working power-sharing government from Monday to May 8. On that date, the Northern Ireland Assembly would elect a 12-member administration with Paisley at its head and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness in the No. 2 post.
Paisley and Adams largely looked at their scripts, not each other, as they addressed live TV audiences across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Both agreed they must leave behind Northern Ireland's bitter divisions and forge a unity government, the central goal of the Good Friday peace pact of 1998.
"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," said Paisley, 80, whose party previously boycotted contact with Sinn Fein because of its links to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
"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 who wore a white Easter lily pin in honor of the dead from a 1916 rebellion against British rule, said the accord "marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island."
"The relationships between the people of this island have been marred by centuries of discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy. In particular this has been the sad history of orange and green," Adams said, using the local labels for the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the community in Northern Ireland. "Now there's a new start, with the help of God," he said. The conflict over Northern Ireland, a corner of the United Kingdom with 1.7 million residents, has claimed more than 3,600 lives since the 1960s - when Adams was an up-and-coming IRA member from Catholic west Belfast, Paisley the province's most infamous opponent of a Catholic civil rights movement. By the mid-1980s, Paisley campaign posters pictured him carrying a sledgehammer and vowing to "smash Sinn Fein." That party had begun contesting elections as part of Adams' strategy to end his diplomatic isolation and turn IRA die-hards toward politics. Britain and Ireland have spent 3Â½ years trying to coax the Democratic Unionists toward Sinn Fein following their triumph in 2003 assembly elections. The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, appeared to have forced Monday's breakthrough by declaring March 26 their "unbreakable" deadline: Either the Democratic Unionists would agree to cooperate by that date, the threat went, or Britain would abolish the assembly - something neither side wanted. While Monday's deadline was missed, others agreed that the Democratic Unionists' dramatic decision to drop their boycott on talks with Sinn Fein was worth it. "Now at last we have a date certain for the devolution of power and a remarkable coming together of people who have, for very obvious reasons, been strongly opposed in the past," said Blair, who has toiled to conclude the peace process before he steps down from power this summer. Ahern said all sides can "move forward from today in an entirely new spirit and with every expectation of success." The deal also drew praise from former President Clinton, whose personal interest in Northern Ireland and controversial decision to grant Adams a 1994 visa while the IRA was still killing spurred peacemaking. "I am elated that this day has finally come," he said. Sinn Fein officials appeared overjoyed to be talking, finally, with their would-be government partners, rather than via the British government or other messengers. "I never quite thought I would see the day. But it was remarkably easy. Both delegations were quite relaxed," said Sinn Fein lawmaker Conor Murphy, who added that the opening of dialogue bodes well for future stability. "A lot of people were skeptical that, even if we could get a government running, it wouldn't work because the Democratic Unionists would refuse to talk to us. Today broke a lot of those taboos," he said. The Democratic Unionist move came two months after Sinn Fein made its own historic U-turn - to open normal relations with the predominantly Protestant police force. That followed the IRA's landmark 2005 decisions to disarm and formally abandon its 1970-97 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force. Power-sharing was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday deal. The last, moderate-led coalition collapsed in October 2002 amid chronic arguments between Protestants and Sinn Fein over the future of the IRA, which at the time was refusing to disarm and accused of gathering intelligence for a potential resumption of violence. The Democratic Unionists boycotted the negotiations that produced the Good Friday deal because Britain permitted Sinn Fein to participate. The Democratic Unionists did take posts in the power-sharing government of 1999-2002, but refused to attend Cabinet meetings because Sinn Fein ministers were there. Until Monday, Paisley's only known exchanges with Adams have come during assembly debates. Just 2Â½ weeks ago, when asked whether he would ever cooperate with Sinn Fein, Paisley was emphatic. "Not the Sinn Fein as we know it today," he said. AP-CS-03-26-07 1824EDT