- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

BELFAST — The leaders of Northern Ireland’s major Protestant and Catholic parties announced a stunning deal yesterday to forge a coalition of archenemies within six weeks.

“We all saw something today that people never, ever thought would happen,” said British Secretary of State Peter Hain, who expects on May 8 to hand power to a coalition led by the polar opposites of provincial politics: Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein.

Mr. Paisley, a Protestant evangelist who for decades has sought to thwart compromise with Roman Catholics, sat beside Mr. Adams, a reputed Irish Republican Army veteran whom Mr. Paisley long denounced as a “man of blood.” Throughout the 14-year Northern Ireland peace process, Mr. Paisley had never before agreed to negotiate directly with Mr. Adams.

Their agreement, after barely an hour of discussions in the lawmakers’ dining hall in Stormont Parliament Building in Belfast, called for Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists to work directly together on a detailed program for government.

Britain, in turn, promised to pass emergency legislation today that would extend its deadline for a working power-sharing government from yesterday to May 8. On that date, the Northern Ireland Assembly would elect a 12-member administration with Mr. Paisley at its head and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness in the No. 2 post.

Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams largely looked at their scripts, not each other, as they addressed live TV audiences across Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Both agreed they must leave behind Northern Ireland’s bitter divisions and forge a unity government, the central goal of the Good Friday peace pact of 1998.

“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 for our children,” said Mr. Paisley, 80, whose party previously boycotted contact with Sinn Fein because of its links to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

Mr. Adams, 58, a reputed veteran IRA commander who wore a white Easter lily pin in honor of the dead from a 1916 rebellion against British rule, said the accord “marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island.”

Power-sharing was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday deal. The last coalition collapsed in October 2002 amid chronic arguments between Protestants and Sinn Fein over the future of the IRA, which at the time was refusing to disarm and accused of gathering intelligence for a potential resumption of violence. The group disarmed in September 2005.

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