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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 22:43 GMT
The day Ireland's Cold War ended

By Tom Coulter in Belfast

It was the day Ireland's equivalent of the Berlin Wall came crashing down.

The Search for Peace
Ministers from the new Northern Ireland Assembly met their Irish Government counterparts at the ecclesiastical capital of the island - the ancient city of Armagh.

The inaugural meeting of the north-south Ministerial Council, a body set up to foster better relations and closer co-operation between the two parts of the island, had a sense of history and occasion.

The 15 members of the Irish Cabinet arrived in a cavalcade of limousines, the like of which had not been seen in Northern Ireland since the visit of American President Bill Clinton in September 1998.

The meeting was held in a former archbishops' palace
They pulled up outside an ornate building on the outskirts of the city, which was once the sprawling home of the Anglican archbishops of Armagh.

Ten of the 12 members of the Assembly executive that runs Northern Ireland were in attendance.

Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, boycotted the meeting, insisting Irish ministers should have no role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

In spite of the absence, Protestant unionists sat with Catholic nationalists and republicans to discuss matters of mutual interest, such as cross-border tourism, agriculture and transport.

'Day unlike any other'

The north-south council will meet at least twice a year in formal plenary (fully attended) sessions - but individual ministers sitting in the different cabinets in Dublin and Belfast can meet as often as they feel it beneficial.

Northern Ireland's first minister, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, described it as the day the Cold War ended between the six counties that make up the North and the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland.

David Trimble, seen here with Bertie Ahern: "The Cold War is over"
The island was partitioned in 1921. Since then many Protestant unionists have viewed the Republic with suspicion, due to its territorial claim to Northern Ireland set against their desire to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Republic removed its territorial claim - which unionists welcomed, saying it could lead to a normalisation of relations.

The Irish Premier, Bertie Ahern, said it was a day unlike any other, when both parts of the island could begin working together in a spirit of friendship and partnership for the mutual benefit of all the people, putting behind them the sectarianism and divisions of the past.

The north-south council is only one element of a developing relationship between Britain and Ireland.

On Friday of this week, there will be the inaugural meeting of the British-Irish council and Inter-governmental Conference.

It brings together the Irish and London governments, along with the new devolved administrations in Belfast, Wales and Scotland.

This grouping will also look at closer working relationships and partnerships they feel will benefit everyone in the British Isles, in the increasingly competitive European and world marketplace.

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See also:
13 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
What will the Ministerial Council do?
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13 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Historic day for north-south council

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