BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The two parties whose conflict fueled decades of violence in Northern Ireland met face to face for the first time yesterday and agreed to enter a power-sharing government May 8.
The meeting marked what many here hope will be the end of a conflict that claimed 3,700 lives - Protestants, Catholics and British soldiers - 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 Ireland, agreed to delay an official handover of power until May. "I believe the agreement marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island," Adams said.
His deputy, 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 "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 the Northern Ireland parliament, Paisley and Adams sat together at a diamond-shaped table, accompanied by their party lieutenants. They 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 most often showed Paisley shouting furiously at a podium with his famous vow "never, never, never" to accept giving Ireland a role in the troubled province's future. Adams was a fixture in scenes of funerals next to the coffins of dead 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 sight of the two of them striding separately into the same room for a meeting yesterday was enough to fill Stormont's lobby with chattering civil servants, visiting schoolchildren and journalists.
The closed-door meeting was "neither tense, nor light-hearted, but business-like," said an adviser to Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party who attended part of the meeting. The adviser, 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 adviser 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 show the potential of what is possible with 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 brinksmanship that has characterized politics in Northern Ireland, the morning began with the possibility that without an agreement, Britain would close down the provincial parliament, seize back 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 yesterday.
But Sinn Fein agreed during yesterday'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, will not only put Sinn Fein in the Cabinet, but will offer a broad new spectrum of cooperation with the Republic of Ireland, with which Sinn Fein leaders hope eventually to unite.
The long-incendiary issue of a united Ireland is left for the future, with current agreements calling for Northern Ireland residents to decide the issue in a possible referendum. The DUP is hoping that a peace dividend brought on by this week's agreement will kick-start the regional economy and undermine support in the gradually growing Catholic community for leaving the United Kingdom.
Paisley said the parties will use the eight-week extension to try to win an improved package of financial aid from London that might include economic incentives to pro-union communities in the north.
Williams K. Graham and Kim Murphy write for The Los Angeles Times.