LONDON — For the first time since 1922, the leaders of Northern Ireland's pro-British Protestants and Irish Catholic republicans sat down face-to-face Thursday to discuss the formation of a new power-sharing government and the future of their embattled province.
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, the designated first minister of Northern Ireland, held more than 30 minutes of private talks with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, in a landmark encounter that Trimble called "civilized and workmanlike."
The two talked through intermediaries during negotiations for a peace agreement signed in April and spoke directly to each other for the first time Monday, but this was their first meeting on their own. No one was in the room with them at the opulent Stormont Parliament, the traditional seat of power in Northern Ireland.
Trimble still refused to shake hands with Adams until the IRA disarms, arguing that the purpose of a handshake is to prove one is not carrying a weapon. Nonetheless, the meeting was seen as another important step forward in a peace process that is made up of incremental steps of rapprochement between Protestants and Catholics.
Another sign of progress was an announcement by Northern Ireland's police chief that British army patrols in Belfast, the provincial capital, will end this weekend. This follows a cease-fire announcement by the self-styled Real IRA, a breakaway republican group that claimed responsibility for a bombing in the town of Omagh last month that killed 29 people and wounded more than 200.
The reduced military presence--patrols will continue along the border with the Irish Republic--is meant to send the message of returning normalcy, show Catholic nationalists that the peace process is producing results and encourage the IRA to disarm.
The meeting between Trimble and Adams was dogged by the contentious issues of IRA disarmament and whether Sinn Fein will be allowed to take its seats in a new ruling Cabinet. Trimble argues that the latter should not happen without disarmament, while Adams counters that there are no conditions in the April peace agreement that Sinn Fein must meet before taking government posts.
The two emerged from the meeting speaking as pragmatic statesmen.
"A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. So the development of common ground, of a shared future, and a shared responsibility for that future, has to start with one meeting," Adams said.
"I think we can do business. . . . Obviously, I have to listen more to David Trimble, and he has to listen more to me. We have to try and have not just an understanding of each other's positions, but also to see how we can marry those positions," he said.
Trimble, who is also a member of the British Parliament, downplayed the new relationship with Adams, which is opposed by as many as a third of the members in his Ulster Unionist Party.
"It is an inevitable fact of involvement in politics here and in Westminster that you have to meet and work with a range of people, and they are not all angels," Trimble said, referring to the seat of British government.
Trimble's party won the most seats in a new Northern Ireland Assembly elected in June, thus earning him the right to become first minister. He is to form a 12-member Cabinet in which Sinn Fein is due two seats based on its proportion of the June vote.
Trimble made it clear again after his meeting with Adams that he does not believe Sinn Fein should be allowed to take its seats in the Cabinet until the IRA begins to dismantle its arsenal. He argues that no political party should have a private army or weapons in reserve.
Adams said he told Trimble during their meeting that he could not deliver an IRA agreement to decommission weapons, but that those who had been engaged in violence would first have to see that the peace process was producing results.
The IRA has been fighting against British rule and for union between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a conflict that has left about 3,600 dead in the past 30 years. The IRA agreed to a cease-fire last year to allow Sinn Fein to participate in negotiations that resulted in the agreement signed on Good Friday.
The Trimble-Adams meeting was the first between pro-British Protestant and Irish Catholic republican leaders since James Craig, the province's first prime minister, and Michael Collins, a leader of the nascent Irish Free State, met to try to ease clashes in 1922.
Special correspondent Martina Purdy in Belfast contributed to this report.