- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

BELFAST — It’s being called “the miracle of Belfast.”

Tuesday’s low-key ceremony created a Catholic-Protestant unity government. For two groups who fought each other for 30 years, killed and maimed thousands, made “peace” with President Clinton in the middle and won Nobel Peace Prizes only to fight again, it was indeed a miracle.

It marked a feat that few people ever thought they would see in their lifetime.

Mr. Clinton, who made multiple visits to Northern Ireland while president, did not attend. Other foreign dignitaries who were present remained noticeably low key.

“We are into a situation whereby politics in Northern Ireland will become more and more normal and let’s hope it might even become a little more boring,” one Protestant leader, David Trimble, told Reuters Television yesterday.

On policy questions, the two sides have already found common ground.

The mainly Catholic Sinn Fein wants Northern Ireland to have greater ties with the Republic of Ireland and to share the republic’s generous tax breaks, specifically its low business tax of 12.5 percent.

Unionists, who are adamant that Northern Ireland will always be part of Britain, agree with them, principally because many Unionist voters are in the business community and would like to see a lower business tax.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, Democratic Unionist Party founder and leader, and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness began their first day on the job yesterday as Northern Ireland’s first minister and deputy first minister respectively.

Their power-sharing government ends direct rule from London.

For British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, the formation of this new government for Northern Ireland also signaled the end of 800 years of enmity between the British and the Irish.

Speaking in the Great Hall at Stormont, the seat of the new administration, Mr. Blair said Tuesday, “Look back, and we see centuries pockmarked by conflict, hardship, even hatred amongst the peoples of these islands.

“Look forward today, and we see the chance, at last, to escape the heavy chains of history, to make history anew, not as a struggle of warring traditions but as a search for a future, shared, held in common, bound by peace.”

In echoing these sentiments, Mr. Ahern said, “As we step from this place of history, we must be resolved that this should be the last generation on these islands to feel the anger and pain of old quarrels.”

For both men, the timing of the ceremony could not have been more crucial.

It is expected that Mr. Blair will announce today in London that he is stepping down from office. His appearance in Belfast was a chance to showcase his legacy — that he is leaving office a winner.

Mr. Ahern is in the middle of a general election campaign — Republic of Ireland voters go to the polls in two weeks — and events at Stormont came as a welcome break from reports in Dublin about his personal finances.

The ceremony and the speeches afterward had all been well-managed, and the mood was relaxed and unforced. Yet there were still moments in the day when one could hardly believe your eyes and ears.

Mr. McGuinness, a former IRA commander, said of Mr. Paisley, a man long reviled in Irish republican ranks, “As for Ian Paisley, I want to wish you all the best as we step forward towards the greatest yet most exciting challenge of our lives.”

For two sides, so diametrically opposed for so long, the new administration was always going to be a strange beast. The two new junior ministers come from two different camps. One is the son of Mr. Paisley, Ian Paisley Jr., a large man known for his short temper; the other is Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, a man widely held to be responsible for the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey courthouse in London.

The two men will now work together on a daily basis.

After the formalities, the younger Mr. Paisley stood on the lawns at Stormont, with Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, for an interview.

The hard-line Unionist said that the administration’s budget was not big enough. He said, “Northern Ireland is entitled to be properly funded in order to give this assembly the best possible chance.”

The die-hard Irish republican at his shoulder said, “I agree with that absolutely. This province has been chronically underfunded for 40 years.”

Mr. Trimble said yesterday that he had no doubts that Mr. Paisley and Mr. McGuinness can work together.

“They have worked together in the past and are working well together now. There is no need to doubt it, they have done and will continue to do so,” he said.

Mr. Trimble and John Hume, who formed an earlier but unsuccessful unity government and jointly won the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, were in Brussels yesterday with other Nobel Peace laureates to mark the 50th anniversary of the European Union.

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