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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 19:13 GMT
Getting down to business Belfast-style
The peace line across part of Belfast New dawn? But the barriers still exist

By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani in Belfast

It was the beginning of the "untying of the knot" with the UK. Alternatively it was the end of an "illegal claim" by the Republic over Northern Ireland.

Devolution week
The hard road ahead
The Stormont ministers
Old foes share power
The Assembly explained
As with almost every stage of the peace process Thursday's momentous events in Northern Ireland meant different things to different people.

But what was clear was that no matter what the no camp said, no matter what the handful of protesters at Stormont said, the Northern Ireland executive promptly met in Room 21 and got down to the business of government.

The team looked relaxed around the large table for the few minutes that the media were allowed to record the event.

William Frazer Hunger strike: William Frazer makes his stand
First Minister David Trimble cracked a joke at Martin McGuinness's expense when the education minister sat in the wrong chair. Unthinkable only weeks ago.

And an hour later, Mr Trimble and his deputy Seamus Mallon told the world's media that it had all gone swimmingly.

"It was a good meeting, we got a lot work done, Seamus?" said one half of the hottest double act in town.

"It was a momentous meeting," chipped in Mr Mallon.


Earlier in the day there had been a mutual round of congratulations as the Irish Republic completed its side of the bargain, removing its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland and the north-south and British-Irish bodies were enacted.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair revisited his most well known Good Friday Agreement soundbite and said that the "hand of history" was finally lifting the threat of terror.

But the one event that everyone wanted to see was due to take place behind closed doors when the Irish Republican Army would be contacting the decommissioning body.

The conversation would be confidential, times and dates for a meeting unknown and arrangements for decommissioning not up for public discussion.

Martin McGuinness Wrong seat: Martin McGuinness sees the funny side
Outside Stormont, the scene was different. William Frazer of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, a South Armagh victims' group, was starting a very public hunger strike in protest against David Trimble agreeing to sit in government with Sinn Fein.

Mr Frazer had lost five members of his family, including his father, to IRA terrorism and was considering moving his protest outside Mr Trimble's home.

He said that even if the IRA did destroy a token number of weapons, there had been no "decommissioning of minds".

"It's alright for people in Bangor or Newtownards to say that they want to give it a try, but the fear has never been removed from our community," said Mr Frazer.

Security remained high in the border county which had long fought a war against the IRA, said Mr Frazer.

"If the weapons are not removed and they don't even fire a shot for 10 years the community will still be living in fear.

"All of these people could lift a gun at anytime that they liked."

Real politics

On the steps of Stormont, the pro-agreement cross-community People Moving On group had planned to release doves of peace until the rain denied them the picture.

But one of the most startling sights at Stormont was a small protest by an anti-abortion group.

Ian Pasley and Nigel Dodds of the DUP Laying it down: Ian Paisley blasts the executive
Coming amid the yeas and the nays of the peace process, this was ordinary politics landing with a bang. Local politicians having to confront a local issue.

Inside Stormont, Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun, the health minister appeared before the cameras already burdened down with official papers.

Like many of the team, her gleaming attache case gave her the look of a student on the first day of term. It was all smiles - even the security guards managed a grin.

But there were others, dissenting voices saying don't believe the hype.

In Stormont's Long Gallery, Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party was making his voice heard all the way to the far windows.

There sat Dr Paisley and his party's two ministers who were refusing to sit in cabinet with Sinn Fein.

They predicted more "spontaneous demonstrations" in schools against Martin McGuinness and then rounded on the media, accusing local journalists of censorship and the international media of "absolute ignorance".

One reporter was accused of effectively being a Sinn Fein man.

"Well you've already called us all liars so why not say that as well, Dr Paisley?" came the retort.

And minutes later a lone unionist protester made his voice known.

Unfurling a banner behind Messrs Trimble and Mallon in Stormont's grand entrance hall, he shouted: "Ulster for sale! Ulster for sale!" before being ushered outside by security.

By 6pm there had been no official word that the IRA's representative had contacted General John de Chastelain and his decommissioning team.

Things take a long time to change in Northern Ireland. Hearts, minds and the political landscape. Wait and see what happens in February
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See also:
02 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland makes history
02 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Clinton hails Northern Ireland's new era
02 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Picture gallery: New hope for Northern Ireland

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