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From enemies to partners in N. Ireland

If talks go as planned, two men barely on speaking terms will lead a Catholic-Protestant government.

March 26, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — One is a hellfire-and-damnation Protestant pastor who looks at the Roman Catholic papacy as "the seed of the serpent" and "the progeny of hell." The other is a Catholic former deputy commander of the Irish Republican Army who once served time for possessing 250 pounds of explosives and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

The two men have never been alone in a room together. They have barely exchanged a word, let alone a handshake. But if all goes as planned, the Rev. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness will become partners in one of the oddest governments Europe has known, in a land where the idea of Protestants and Catholics sharing power is the oddest idea of all.

Peace is slowly coming to Northern Ireland, or what passes for peace in a region still stunned by the decades-long civil war between Catholics who sought union with Ireland and Protestants who declared allegiance to Britain, a brutal conflict that claimed 3,700 lives.

Within the next two months, the glowering, iron-willed Paisley could be nominated as first minister of a new, jointly administered Northern Irish government. Serving at his side, as deputy first minister, would be McGuinness, who for years was part of the IRA's leadership.

Last-minute obstacles

"When this happens, and I believe now that it will happen, it will probably be the biggest political development since the 1916 Rising or the partition of Ireland in the early 1920s," McGuinness said in an interview last week. "I think many people will have to pinch themselves to believe that it's true."

The extent of the distance both men have had to come, and still must walk, was apparent Sunday, as Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party signaled it was not ready to meet today's deadline for joining McGuinness' Sinn Fein in government. British officials have made clear that the alternative is to see Northern Ireland's interim parliament at Stormont shut down immediately and the province ruled directly from London, with strong input from the Irish government in Dublin.

Yet DUP leaders reportedly signaled they were ready to commit to entering a government by May. And preparations were said to be underway for a possible first meeting today between Paisley and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on the timetable for forming a government.

But Sinn Fein appeared to be reluctant to go along with any delay, and a British official warned early today that the process could "crash" by midnight if Paisley did not agree to enter the government. The last-minute drama and sudden obstacles underscore what many see as the difficult prospects for any government run by these strangest of bedfellows.

"We're going into a government where the two main leaders are a theocrat and an autocrat, each one leading a sectarian camp," said Anthony McIntyre, an advocate of ending British rule who spent 18 years in prison for killing a British loyalist. "Is that what we fought about? Is it even a recipe for a lasting peace?"

'The Big Man'

Belfast these days is a mix of heady excitement and rueful doomsday predictions from a population accustomed to years of breakthrough agreements followed by infighting delay deadlines and more talks.

Still, many here are predicting that a final power-sharing government will be put into place, if not today, then in the next several weeks.

For one thing, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is determined to end the Northern Ireland conflict before he steps down this summer, and his government has pledged $70.1 billion in aid to the new government over the next four years.

But there are other reasons: the Sept. 11 attacks, which ended any romantic ideas of "freedom fighters" in the U.S. and much of the IRA's American support; the IRA's subsequent, historic decision to disband and join the political process; the rise of a Catholic middle class in Northern Ireland; and the embrace of Europe, which has rendered boundaries across the continent far less distinct.

Crucial to it all has been the spiritual journey of the 80-year-old Paisley, a force in Ulster so huge and so immovable that no peace is possible without his hoarse, blustering blessing. Much as it took Ariel Sharon to dismantle Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, bringing "the Big Man" to the table has proved the only viable way to get dinner.

"Paisley was the Rubicon, the river all sides had to cross, or at least meet in the middle halfway," said Peter Shirlow, a lecturer at the University of Ulster and a longtime follower of the peace process.

Yet the DUP's announcement over the weekend that it was ready to enter a government with Sinn Fein in May raises questions for many in Belfast, on both sides of the divide. Why now? And if now, why not before?

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