/ 8 May 2007

Northern Ireland enters new power-sharing era

Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders, arch-foes during decades of bloodshed, launched a new power-sharing government in the British province on Tuesday aiming to put a final end to violence.

Hard-line Protestant cleric Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness took a pledge of office as first minister and deputy first minister in the government that will have authority over local issues in the province.

The ceremony could help to cement political stability in the province which, since a 1998 peace accord, has largely ended 30 years of sectarian conflict that killed 3 600 people.

”I affirm the terms of the pledge of office,” Paisley said, binding himself to a pledge that includes a commitment to non-violence and support for policing in the British province.

McGuinness repeated the words at a meeting of the Northern Ireland assembly at Belfast’s Stormont building.

The ceremony put into practice a March 26 agreement between the main Protestant and Catholic groups, Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, political ally of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerrilla group, to share power after years of deadlock.

Unlike previous, failed attempts at power-sharing, the leaders appear determined this time to make it work.

”It is a special day because we are making a new beginning and I believe we’re starting on a road which will bring us back to peace and prosperity,” Paisley said as he arrived at Stormont.

McGuinness said it was an historic day, noting: ”What we’re going to see today [Tuesday] is one of the mightiest leaps forward that this process has seen in almost 15 years.”

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said power-sharing proved that dialogue and perseverance could bring results.

”We’re going to change the political landscape from here out,” he said. ”We are going to succeed”.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who have guided the Northern Ireland peace process for the past decade, were due to speak at a reception later.

Blair, who plans to stand down as prime minister soon, sees the latest power-sharing deal between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority as one of the main achievements of his 10 years in power after previous deals proved short-lived.


British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, who signed an order on Monday transferring local government powers from London back to the province, praised the leaders’ determination.

”Given that until literally a few weeks ago they’d never even passed a word between each other … the personal chemistry between them is very good,” Hain told BBC radio

”… We really are at the dawn of a new democratic future … I think it will stick and I think it will work,” he said.

Paisley and McGuinness have made a good start to their new partnership, smiling and chatting when they greeted European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso last week.

It has been a strange role reversal for the 80-year-old Paisley, who has been an outspoken defender of Northern Ireland’s British links and until recently refused to talk to Sinn Fein, which he viewed as indistinguishable from the IRA that waged a bloody 30-year campaign against British rule.

McGuinness, a former member of the IRA, and Sinn Fein want to see the province united with the Irish Republic to the south.

The home-rule assembly was first set up under the 1998 Good Friday peace deal, but Britain suspended it and resumed direct rule from London in 2002 after Sinn Fein offices at Stormont were raided by police investigating an alleged IRA spy ring.

The peace dividend is evident in Belfast where the economy has picked up and construction cranes dominate the skyline. — Reuters