DUBLIN (AP) — Protestant leader Ian Paisley shook hands with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in public for the first time today, marking another small step on the path to peace in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Ahern and Mr. Paisley smiled and slapped each other on the shoulder before their meeting in the Irish capital.
“I better shake hands with this man and give you a firm grip,” Mr. Paisley boomed as he arrived.
Mr. Ahern’s office confirmed that it was the first public handshake, but said there had been previous handshakes in private.
After their meeting, Mr. Paisley accepted Mr. Ahern’s invitation to visit the site of the Battle of the Boyne, a decisive moment in Irish history when the forces of the Protestant King William III defeated the army of the Catholic King James II.
Protestant celebrations of the victory each July 12 have frequently been the occasion for violent clashes with Catholics.
Mr. Paisley said his visit to the battle site north of Dublin “will demonstrate how far we have come when we can celebrate and learn from the past so the next generation more clearly understands the future.”
Mr. Paisley had long resisted any role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland and did not visit Mr. Ahern’s office until Sept. 30, 1999. After that meeting, Mr. Paisley would not speak to reporters until he had reached the British Embassy.
Last week, Mr. Paisley sat stiffly next to Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, as they announced an agreement to form a new government within six weeks. It marked the first time that Mr. Paisley had agreed to negotiate directly with Mr. Adams, whose party is allied with the Irish Republican Army.
Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams have yet to shake hands in public.
On May 8, the Northern Ireland Assembly is to elect a 12-member administration with Mr. Paisley at its head and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness in the No. 2 post.