Political leaders from both sides of the Irish border cast aside decades of hostility today to hold talks designed to seal a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

In an unprecedented display of unity, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern led his cabinet into the heart of Northern Ireland for a meeting with ministers from the British province's 11-day-old coalition government of Protestants and Roman Catholics.

"For too long, conflict and political division led us to turn our backs on one another, rather than to deal face to face," Ahern said. "That era is now over, and today marks its end."

The gathering at a former residence of Protestant archbishops here helped cement the fast-moving Northern Ireland peace process and usher in an era of harmony after nearly 80 years of partition.

In a day rich in symbolism, Ahern and 24 other ministers from north and south launched a North-South Ministerial Council to promote Ireland-wide development from trade to tourism. The cross-border body is among a range of political initiatives that after 20 months of paralysis have given new life to the Good Friday 1998 peace accord, which set a framework for an end to 30 years of sectarian violence in the province.

But there was one sour note. Two Northern Ireland ministers from the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party refused to attend the inaugural council session. The two Protestant cabinet ministers said the council was pushing Northern Ireland toward union with the Republic of Ireland.

In the conference chamber, Ahern exchanged smiles and light-hearted banter with Northern Ireland's First Minister David Trimble, who is also leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party. Hailing what he called "truly an important day," Ahern said he hopes that pro-British Ulster Unionists, until now deeply suspicious of any links with the Irish Republic, would see his cabinet's arrival in Armagh as a token of friendship.

Trimble added: "Nobody should be scared of cooperation. Cooperation across borders is commonplace throughout Europe. It was only inhibited here in the past by a failure to approach it on the basis of according mutual respect."

CAPTION: Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble, center, answers questions after the council's meeting.