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A 'remarkable' N. Irish meeting

Unionist Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, old foes, hold their first direct talks and set date to govern.

March 27, 2007|William Graham and Kim Murphy | Special to The Times

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — The leaders of two parties whose conflict helped fuel decades of violence in Northern Ireland held direct talks for the first time Monday and agreed to enter a power-sharing government on May 8.

The meeting marked what many here hope will be the end of the strife that claimed 3,700 lives over three decades. It also set the stage for the Rev. Ian Paisley, the 80-year-old standard-bearer of pro-British unionism in Northern Ireland, to become the province's first minister within six weeks.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who has spent much of his political life battling to end British rule in the province and unite with Ireland, agreed to delay an official transfer of power until May. "I believe the agreement ... marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island," Adams said.

His lieutenant, Martin McGuinness, is expected to be named deputy first minister in the new joint administration.

"Everything we have done over the last 10 years has been a preparation for this moment," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, calling the meeting in Belfast, the provincial capital, "a remarkable coming together of people who have, for very obvious reasons, been strongly opposed in the past."

Meeting in the ornate dining room at Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland's parliament, Paisley and Adams sat together at a diamond-shaped table, accompanied by party colleagues. The two leaders appeared cordial and relaxed as cameras were brought in after the meeting, despite tensions during the previous 24 hours of negotiations.

Television news programs throughout the 1980s often showed Paisley at a lectern vowing furiously to "never, never, never" accept giving Ireland a role in the troubled province's future. Adams was a fixture in scenes of funerals, which showed him next to the coffins of Irish Republican Army fighters.

For years, Paisley refused to hold direct meetings with Adams, would not consider joining a government with him, would not look his way if they passed in the hall.

The chance to see the two of them striding separately into the same room for a meeting Monday was enough to fill Stormont's lobby with journalists, visiting schoolchildren and chattering civil servants.

The closed-door meeting was "neither tense nor lighthearted, but businesslike," said an advisor to Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party who attended part of the meeting. The advisor, who requested anonymity, said Paisley and Adams did most of the talking, though their aides joined discussions of the need for additional British aid to help finance the new executive.

After a televised portion of the meeting in which both sides read statements, the advisor said, Paisley and Adams had "a conversation" that was "friendly and cordial." But they left without a handshake, he said.

Adams was wearing an Easter lily badge on the lapel of his suit jacket, commemorating the 1916 republican rising in Dublin against British rule. Paisley walked into the building in his trademark black felt hat.

"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," Paisley said afterward. "In looking to that future, we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, emerging. We owe it to them to craft and build the best future possible."

Adams said the agreements so far showed the potential of a power-sharing government.

"The relationships between the people of this island have been marred by centuries of discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy," he said. "We have all come a very long way in the process of peacemaking and national reconciliation."

In a manner typical of the brinkmanship that has characterized politics in Northern Ireland, the morning began with the possibility that without an agreement, Britain would close down the provincial parliament, reimpose direct rule and declare an end to the peace process. The province had been under a long-agreed deadline to nominate the power-sharing government by Monday.

But Sinn Fein agreed during Monday's meeting to the six-week delay proposed by Paisley's DUP, giving the elderly politician time to smooth over remaining dissent within his party.

Sinn Fein also has traveled a lengthy political road. The party took unprecedented steps to fully decommission the IRA and throw its support behind the province's police force, which for years had been involved in clashes with anti-British republican militants.

The joint government, if commissioned, would not only put Sinn Fein in the Cabinet, but would also offer a broad new spectrum of cooperation with the Republic of Ireland, with which Sinn Fein leaders hope eventually to unite.

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