Power-sharing begins in Northern Ireland

Former foes are sworn in to lead new government

May 09, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- A militant Free Presbyterian preacher and a former leader of the Irish Republican Army were sworn in as the joint heads of a new government in Northern Ireland yesterday in a move to conclude more than 30 years of conflict between Protestants loyal to Britain and Catholics who fought for a united Ireland.

The two still-suspicious new government leaders did not single out each other in the giddy handshakes shared among the new Northern Irish officials. But as the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein took their oaths, both sides hailed the day as the final end of the Troubles that took more than 3,500 lives between 1969 and 2001. In taking office, they swore to oppose discrimination, promote connections with Britain and Ireland and uphold the work of the police.

The event marked a crowning achievement for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has spent 10 mostly frustrating years of his premiership pushing the parties toward peace. He is expected to announce his resignation this week having brought the conflict's most intractable activists into a common government.

"Northern Ireland was synonymous with conflict. ... People felt that it could not be done, indeed sometimes even that it shouldn't be done, that the compromises involved were too ugly," Blair said. "Yet in the end it was done. And this holds a lesson for conflict everywhere."

Paisley, the 81-year-old Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's pro-British hard-liners, for years was known as "Dr. No" for his opposition to making peace with Catholic republicans who favor leaving Britain and joining the Irish Republic. His most famous words are his declaration of "never, never, never" in response to the agreement in 1985 between Britain and Ireland that set the course for self-determination and gave Ireland an advisory role in Northern Ireland.

"In politics, as in life, it is a truism that no one can ever have 100 percent of what they desire. ... Unlike at any other time I believe we are now able to make progress," he said.

In the final rounds of negotiations leading up to yesterday's ceremony, Paisley won what he viewed as his most important concession - McGuinness' oath to support the police and urge his community to support them as well. For years, many of the province's Catholics saw the police as parties to the conflict.

Sinn Fein, the political arm of the now-disbanded IRA, is increasingly turning its attention to elections in the Republic of Ireland as a step toward winning its goal of a united territory. Thus, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams nominated McGuinness, his deputy, as deputy first minister in the new government.

"The road we are embarking on will have many twists and turns," said McGuinness, 57. "It is, however, a road which we have chosen and which is supported by the vast majority of our people. In the recent elections they voted for a new political era based on peace and reconciliation."

The Good Friday accord of 1998 set the course for self-determination and gave Ireland an advisory role in Northern Ireland. The agreement led to a change in the constitution of Ireland removing that nation's claim to the territory and created a new Northern Ireland Assembly. Both sides renounced violence as a means of settling the conflict.

The moderate Protestant and Catholic leaders who helped negotiate the agreement won the Nobel Peace Prize that year. But the two - David Trimble, then head of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, and John Hume, former leader of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party - were beset with opposition from radicals within their own movements. In the end, it took the naysayers, Paisley and Adams, to negotiate what looks to be a durable peace.

Under the agreement, Northern Ireland remains part of Britain unless - Sinn Fein would say until - a majority in the province vote to leave Britain and join Ireland. But Ireland and Britain have a role in the province through separate north-south and east-west councils.

"I have no doubt that we're now in a situation of lasting peace," Hume said after the ceremonies. "I think it's a very moving day for all of us in Northern Ireland, given what the people of Northern Ireland have suffered during the last 30 years."

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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