Bertie Ahern and Ian Paisley cut the ribbon at the Boyne centre
By Diarmaid Fleming
First Minister Ian Paisley and outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern have jointly opened a new visitor and heritage centre at the site of the Battle of the Boyne.
It was a day of symbolism on many levels at Oldbridge in County Meath.
It was a ceremony few could have imagined 11 years ago, when Bertie Ahern first took office as taoiseach.
But on Tuesday, in blazing sunshine, Fianna Fáil faithful invited by Ahern rubbed shoulders with members of the Orange Order in full regalia, to see the taoiseach in his last day of office open a new visitor centre at the site of the Battle of the Boyne with Stormont First Minister Ian Paisley.
A crowd of more than 1,500 invited guests came for the opening of the centre, which the Irish government hopes will foster a new awakening in the shared history of the two historical and political traditions in Ireland.
Ahern had driven the project, after a commitment to return to the site with Paisley a year after both visited it last year, just weeks after devolution was re-established in Stormont following Paisley's agreement to share power with Sinn Féin, his one-time arch enemies.
The opening of the site on Ahern's last day in office merely provided a backdrop to greater symbolism, not just in terms of the hopes of closer understanding between Orange and Green, but also marking a closure of the chapter of this period of Irish history which both men helped to create.
Paisley follows Ahern into retirement in the coming weeks.
Such was the importance of the occasion to Ahern, that he said his unexpectedly early resignation forced the project's completion to be rushed forward by the Republic's Office of Public Works.
It completed the transformation of derelict Oldbridge House into a museum with battle re-creations, set in 500 acres of spectacular lush green pastureland.
Both men praised each other in their search for peace.
"I would like to commend you for the leadership you showed in helping bring about the famous day in May last year when the democratic institutions were restored," Ahern said.
"I would like to thank you for helping to lay the foundations for a peaceful and prosperous future in Northern Ireland. And above all I would like to thank you for your courtesy to me and for your friendship."
The outgoing taoiseach also said he hoped the new centre would bring people from both traditions across Ireland closer together.
"For far too long many people from Northern Ireland were afraid to travel to the south.
"I'm glad to say those days are over and I look forward to an increasing interaction between all of the people of this island," he said.
"The fact that we have come here together shows us once again that our history need not divide us.
"Your history is our history too. We need to understand our shared history if we are to build our shared future.
"In the future, let us be reconciled with each other. Let us be friends and let us live in peace," added Ahern.
The site has massive symbolism for loyalists and the Orange Order, as the site of victory of Protestant King William III over the Roman Catholic King James II in July 1690.
Bertie Ahern signs off as taoiseach
The battle is the focus of Protestant Orange marches across the north of Ireland on 12 July every year.
But 82-year-old Paisley in customary booming voice delivered a stirring speech, peppered with applause, in which he said that days of violence must remain in the past.
"This must be the end of all atrocities and the building of the way to peace," he said.
"The coming generation has a right to demand this and they must have it. We cannot fail them.
"To the bad old days, there can be no turning back," the North Antrim MP said.
"The killing times must be ended forever and no tolerance must be given to any who advocate their return.
"A strong dedication to peace and an intolerance of murder must drive us forward. This must be the end of all atrocities and the building of the way to peace," he added.
Both men used original 17th century swords to cut the ribbon to open the visitor centre at Oldbridge House.
But far from cries of battle or the clank of steel which once echoed on the "green grassy slopes" of the Boyne - or the uncompromising speeches which were the trademark of most of his political career - Paisley, in a second impromptu speech, seemed to reach out even more to the Republic.
He told invited guests of a shared patriotism between himself and Ahern and their two traditions.
"A love of this island we jointly hold together. I want the best for the people of every part of this island," he said, adding that jobs and housing were now what he wanted to hear about, not sectarian violence or murder.
When both men met at the site last year, Paisley presented the taoiseach with an antique musket rifle used by one of King James's troops at the 1690 battle.
A different present was brought on Tuesday, a 17th century gift-wrapped New Testament.
To laughter, Paisley, who was accompanied by his wife Eileen, offered to expound its meanings to Ahern during their retirements.
Those behind the heritage site project, driven by Ahern, hope the new centre will foster better understanding between loyalists and nationalists of their shared history in Ireland.
Like the brand new road leading up to the visitor centre however, the road to mutual understanding is somewhat new for some too, and perhaps overly-sensitive treading can lead to bizarre results, judging from the odd choice of music at the event.
Odd musical context
No Irish music was heard during the ceremony, such as the works of contemporary 17th and 18th century legendary composer Turlough O'Carolan, born in nearby Nobber, County Meath just 20 years before the battle raged.
Nor were the strains of "The Sash My Father Wore", the Orange anthem recalling the Battle of the Boyne, deemed fit for airing by the organisers.
Instead, somewhat bizarrely for an occasion marking a momentous event in Irish history, guests were entertained to a medley including the Blue Danube and Radetsky March, pieces composed in Vienna over 150 years after the Battle of the Boyne in the 19th century by Strauss, an odd musical context known only to those organising the ceremony.
Former SDLP leader John Hume and Ian Paisley shake hands at the ceremony
In time, the centre may perhaps help foster better understanding of Ireland's shared historical and cultural traditions, and remove any fears of their display or performance.
But despite the music, such mutual cultural respect was already in evidence at the ceremony, as a scarcely-noticed event revealed at its end.
Just before Ahern was about to leave in his car for Dublin to say goodbye to staff in the Dáil before resigning, he was asked to pose for informal photographs with members of the Orange Order.
As they lined up, one of those bedecked in Orange regalia greeted Ahern in the Irish language, who returned the greeting.
Orangemen speaking Irish at the Boyne to an Irish taoiseach could not have been imagined in the recent past, a snapshot of shared culture which both Ahern and Paisley would hope they have helped forge, as well as a peace they would want to be their lasting political legacy.