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Last Updated: Monday, 26 March 2007, 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK
Statesmen end decades of hatred
Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

It was a moment for which all kinds of superlatives seemed appropriate, but none seemed adequate. You had to remind yourself that almost anywhere else on earth it would have been routine, even dull - two long-serving leaders of political parties on the point of entering a coalition talking about the challenges to come.

Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams
Both found words which were generous and even statesmanlike

But this is Northern Ireland, where for almost 40 years rival communities sought to resolve their problems not inside a parliament building, but in the streets outside it. Things are different here.

Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley have each led their respective communities through a wilderness of violence for more than 30 years.

They represent people whose depth of mutual animosity is closer to hatred than it is to political rivalry in the conventional European sense.

'Broken homes and hearts'

In decades of political leadership in a province with a population the size of a large English county or a medium-sized American city they had never met, spoken, or shaken hands.

In different ways, each would have blamed the other for the violence which has broken thousands of homes and hearts here.

Gerry Adams has wanted this meeting for years - it is part of his extraordinary journey from reviled paramilitary to renowned statesman.

Ian Paisley has always refused.

Casting Sinn Fein as political pariahs appealed to his followers of course, many of whom had relatives who died at the hands of the IRA, but it also provided a sort of guarantee against change.

Not talking meant not being asked to share power.

As republicanism has changed though, and moved away from its paramilitary past, it has been difficult for Ian Paisley to stick to the old hard line.

Such was the symbolic power of it all that the image of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley side by side at the conference table will surely come in future as the image that defines the peace process

Unionists were filled with anger and hatred by IRA violence of course, but it also provided a guarantee that they would not have to change, or think about the future too much.

Once the violence stopped, unionism was forced to operate on a new political landscape and today's meeting was just one outworking of that.

And who knows - perhaps Ian Paisley after starting his career as an anti-establishment outsider in the privileged world of protestant politics here achieved his real goal when he became the leading unionist politician in 2003.

Since then he has been freer to pursue the goal of leaving behind a more constructive legacy - this was after all the man who for decades opposed any hint of change or whiff of accommodation with catholic nationalism.

Such was the symbolic power of it all that the image of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley side by side at the conference table will surely come in future as the image that defines the peace process.

Future disagreements

As they sealed the deal to share power just six weeks from now, the two men found words which were generous and even statesmanlike even if there was no warmth, and more than a little awkwardness.

It would have been surprising if it had been any other way.

There were even signs that each had deferred to the sensibilities of the other.

Ian Paisley spoke of a loathing for the horrors of the past, without saying who was to blame for them.

Gerry Adams made a rare reference to the help of God when he talked of the opportunities for the future.

So much time and energy in Northern Irish politics has gone into getting the assembly back that it is easy to forget that parliaments are simply arenas for disagreement.

And there are plenty of disagreements to come here.

Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams still represent two parties which will disagree about almost everything once power-sharing is restored but almost everyone in Northern Ireland understands the significance of this moment; in future, differences will be resolved inside a parliament, not in the streets beyond it.




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