BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley and IRA veteran Martin McGuinness formed a long-unthinkable alliance Tuesday as Northern Ireland power-sharing went from dream to reality – and all sides expressed hope that bloodshed over this British territory would never return.
Paisley, who spent decades refusing to cooperate with Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, conceded he had often refused to budge in years past but was ready now. He lauded the Irish Republican Army’s moves to renounce violence and disarm, and Sinn Fein’s decision to cooperate with the province’s mostly Protestant police as genuine.
“From the depths of my heart, I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in this province,” Paisley said.
Tuesday’s speedy, trouble-free formation of a 12-member administration jointly led by Paisley and McGuinness heralded an astonishing new era for Northern Ireland following decades of violence and political stalemate that left 3,700 dead.
Paisley, 81, affirmed an oath pledging to cooperate with Catholics and the government of the neighboring Republic of Ireland – moves that the fire-and-brimstone evangelist had long denounced as surrender.
Sinn Fein deputy leader McGuinness, 56, accepted the post of deputy first minister, which despite its title carries the same power as Paisley’s post of first minister.
As part of the same oath of office, McGuinness pledged to support the police and British courts – a position Sinn Fein refused for decades to accept.
Paisley’s Democratic Unionists took five Cabinet positions, Sinn Fein four, while the moderate Protestants of the Ulster Unionists received two and the moderate Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party just one. Positions were allocated on the basis of each party’s strength in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Afterward, assembly members from all parties mingled with a jubilant crowd of dignitaries and well-wishers in the grand foyer of Stormont Parliamentary Building.
The Bush administration was represented by its newly appointed envoy for Northern Ireland affairs, State Department official Paul Dobriansky.
Much more attention was paid to two Kennedys: Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and his sister, former Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith. She mingled in the crowd alongside Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams – whose international isolation ended in 1994 when she persuaded then-President Clinton to grant him a U.S. visa, defying British policy at the time.
“This is an extraordinary example that Northern Ireland is showing to the world, that you can disband militias and private armies, and put away the bomb and bullet,” the senator said, referring to the IRA’s 2005 decisions to renounce violence and disarm.
The audience was treated to exceptionally conciliatory speeches by Paisley and McGuinness as well as the British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, whose close cooperation since 1997 has underpinned the entire peace process.
McGuinness said they had “astounded the skeptics” and gestured to his new government partner, Paisley. “I want to wish you the best as we step forward into the greatest and most exciting challenge of our lives,” he said.
Blair, who is widely expected to announce his resignation from office later this week, said Ireland had suffered “centuries pockmarked by conflict, hardship and hatred.” He said Belfast power-sharing offered the chance “at last to escape those heavy chains of history.”
Blair and Ahern paid fulsome tribute to the leadership of Paisley and Sinn Fein – but particularly to each other.
“Bertie has always been there, willing to surmount another obstacle. … Bertie, thank you,” he said to Ahern, who is facing a tough May 24 election to remain in power.
Ahern said peace in Northern Ireland could not have been established without Blair’s hands-on involvement in coaxing the two sides together. He called Blair “a true friend of Ireland” and praised him for “the true determination that he had, for just sticking with it, for 10 tough years.”
The two premiers, Paisley and McGuinness then posed for photographs in the sunshine on a side staircase of Stormont. There were happy handshakes all around – except, in a dramatic illustration of their remaining distrust and discomfort, between Paisley and McGuinness, who avoided direct eye contact.
Earlier, McGuinness and Paisley sat down in separate armchairs at a small living room-style table in Paisley’s grand new ministerial office, while Blair and Ahern shared a crowded sofa with Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain.
A live television feed beamed the first few, largely awkward minutes of their conversation, which was dominated by Paisley. McGuinness did not manage an audible peep.
Paisley, referring to Blair’s imminent departure from Downing Street, noted to laughter all around: “As you’re going out as a young man, I’m coming in as a granddad!”
Blair spoke, but largely as the straight man to Paisley’s quips. When Blair noted how friendly Northern Ireland people were as individuals, so at odds with their bitter politics, Paisley shot back: “I wonder why people hate me, because I’m such a nice man!”