By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
BELFAST, March 26 -- Two men who represent both extremes in Northern Ireland's deep sectarian divide sat down together for the first time on Monday, and their once-unthinkable meeting produced a landmark deal to form a local government in which Protestants and Catholics will share power.
Northern Ireland was transfixed by televised images of Ian Paisley, the province's most outspoken Protestant political leader, and Gerry Adams, a Catholic and reputed former commander in the Irish Republican Army, sitting side by side reading statements pledging mutual cooperation. For four decades, Paisley has called Adams a "terrorist" and referred to Pope John Paul II as the "antichrist," while Catholics have publicly accused Paisley of inciting violence against them.
"Those pictures of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams will resonate around the world," said Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, the top British government official in the province. "If after the last 40 years or more they can talk, anything and everything is possible for Northern Ireland."
The new provincial government will be launched May 8 under terms agreed to by Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the province's largest Protestant party, and Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the largest Catholic party. Sitting in an ornate dining room in Stormont, Northern Ireland's palatial parliament building, the two fierce rivals pledged joint governance of a province where their followers had engaged in a three-decade conflict that claimed more than 3,600 lives.
"After a long and difficult time in our province, I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead," said Paisley, 80, a Protestant minister known as "Dr. No" for his often vitriolic denunciation of Catholics, and of Adams in particular. "I am committed to delivering for not only those who voted for the DUP, but for all the people of Northern Ireland."
Sitting at Paisley's elbow, Adams, whose voice was once banned from British airwaves, said the agreement represented "the beginning of a new era of politics" and cooperation between rivals. "It is a time for generosity, a time to be mindful of the common good and of the future of all our people," he said.
The British government had given the province's political parties until Monday to agree to a power-sharing government or submit to direct rule from London indefinitely. Although Sinn Fein had agreed to meet the deadline, DUP leaders announced Saturday that they wanted a six-week delay. British officials said they would grant the extension only if all parties agreed to it, which they did Monday.
Prime Minister Tony Blair called it "a very important day for the people of Northern Ireland, but also for the people and the history of these islands." Referring to the decade since the 1998 Good Friday accord, which called for a local government jointly run by Protestants and Catholics, Blair said, "Everything we have done over the last 10 years has been a preparation for this moment."
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has worked closely with Blair and the Northern Ireland political parties, said Monday's agreement had "the potential to transform the future of this island."
British officials said legislation would be introduced in the British Parliament to authorize the May 8 return of the 108-member provincial assembly. It will be headed by Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's second-in-command, as deputy first minister.
The Good Friday accord set out a blueprint for lasting peace after a 1997 cease-fire ended three decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. The first assembly created under the agreement collapsed in October 2002 in partisan acrimony. The body reconvened in May 2006, but until Monday, the province's political parties were unable to agree on a power-sharing plan.
It was unclear why Paisley and the DUP dropped their objections. Analysts have said they may have had little choice, following the IRA's disarmament, Sinn Fein's pledge to support the province's Protestant-dominated police force and a general surge in prosperity in the decade since the cease-fire. Except for radical elements on both sides, most people in Northern Ireland are pressing their leaders to pursue security and prosperity rather than continue stoking old rivalries.
Still, analysts here cautioned that creating a new assembly would not erase sectarian divisions dating back centuries. Ancient rivalries are still on display daily in the province, where "nationalist" or "republican" Catholics favor unification with the Republic of Ireland and "unionist" or "loyalist" Protestants remain fiercely loyal to the British crown.
"It's like the emperor's new clothes -- people are pretending to see something that isn't there," said Pete Shirlow, a senior lecturer at Queen's University in Belfast who specializes in conflict resolution. Shirlow said that despite the prosperity brought by peace, Northern Ireland remains deeply segregated.
He said 70 percent of the population still lives in communities that are almost exclusively Protestant or Catholic, and 90 percent of children study in schools dominated by one denomination. Nearly two-thirds of people between 14 and 24 have never had a substantial conversation with someone of the other faith, he added, and mixed marriages remain extremely uncommon.
"We are living together in isolation, purposefully apart," Shirlow said. He noted that Paisley and Adams have agreed to govern together but their parties have rarely discussed serious efforts to integrate neighborhoods and schools.
While Monday's announcement affects everything from water rates to hospitals to pothole repair, it was the sight of Paisley and Adams sitting together that left most people here dumbstruck. Their joint public appearance lasted less than 20 minutes but was filled with signs of the subtlety of the tribal divisions here.
Paisley opened with a commitment to improving the lives of "people in this part of the United Kingdom," his choice of words underscoring loyalists' insistence that the province is a part of Britain. He pledged to have "regular meetings" with McGuinness between now and May 8 and said he and Adams had agreed to press the British government for the best possible economic assistance package.
Many Catholics here have said they sensed a softening in Paisley's hard line in recent months. Many believe Paisley was ready to start governing with Sinn Fein as of Monday but that he had failed to persuade more extreme elements in his party.
On Monday, Paisley sounded both stern and willing to compromise. "We must not allow our justified loathing for the horrors and atrocities of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children," he said in his booming baritone. "As we look to that future, we must never forget those who suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, now emerging."
Adams stressed his commitment to "the people of Ireland" and the "people of this island," his phrasing reflecting the republican view of Northern Ireland as rightfully part of the divided island of Ireland. He dotted his speech with sentences in Irish Gaelic, the national language of Ireland, which British governments of the past have outlawed. On his lapel he wore a lily to commemorate those who died in the 1916 Irish rebellion against British rule.
Monday's agreement "created the potential to build a new, harmonious and equitable relationship between nationalists and republicans and unionists, and all of the rest of the people of the island of Ireland," Adams said.
Adams and Paisley did not speak to each other while the cameras were rolling. At the end of their remarks, Adams looked toward Paisley as if he wanted to shake hands. Paisley looked down and shuffled his papers.