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The BBC's Denis Murray
"First public handshake between a British Prime Minister and a member of Sinn Fein"
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Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson
"Today a new political era is opening up"
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Friday, 17 December, 1999, 23:07 GMT
Handshake cements historic day

All smiles: Tony Blair and David Trimble at Downing Street


The frantic pace of developments in the Northern Ireland peace process has continued with a day of historic meetings.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern hailed the first meetings of new bodies bringing together political leaders from across Britain and Ireland as a significant step in the search for a lasting peace in Ulster.

The Search for Peace
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Link to Good Friday Agreement
Both men said the inaugural meetings of the British-Irish Council, and the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference, would deepen understanding and strengthen ties between London, Dublin and Belfast.

They said enhanced co-operation on a range of day-to-day issues would assist the continuing search for a permanent peace in the province.


Tony Blair and Bairbre de Brun Blair and de Brun: Historic handshake
In a sign of the gradual normalisation of Ulster politics, Mr Blair greeted Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun to the Council, held at Lancaster House in central London, with a handshake.

Although Mr Blair has shaken hands previously with Sinn Fein members in private, it was the first time he had done so publicly.

In his opening address to the Council, Mr Blair said: "We have made incredible progress. That progress and today's meetings represent huge steps on the road to normality in Northern Ireland.

"We are building a lasting peace, in which dialogue and democracy are replacing violence and hatred and terror."

'Special significance'

Mr Blair told the Council, one of the last institutions to spring from the Good Friday Agreement, that the agreement allowed for all the traditions in Northern Ireland to have a voice.

Mr Ahern said the meeting had a particular symbolic significance.

"The establishment of the Council is an essential part of the institutional architecture provided for in the Good Friday Agreement which will give expression to all the relationships and traditions in these islands," he said.

"In that respect today has a special significance - the last two bricks in this institutional structure are being put in place."


The conference followed the earlier meeting
Northern Ireland's First Minister David Trimble said he believed the new arrangements were the "last building block of the Belfast Agreement", and appealed for everyone to work together to build a better future.

"Let us learn from the past and use our combined strengths to build a better future for all our peoples. We all have more in common to unite us than we have in division to divide us," he said.

The meeting of the Council - intended to promote beneficial relationships between the peoples of the various parts of Britain and the Irish Republic - was also attended by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, Mr Trimble's deputy Seamus Mallon, Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar and Welsh First Secretary Alun Michael.

Also present were representatives of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

'Milestone'

Later, at Downing Street, the first meeting of the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference - a forum for the two governments to discuss issues of mutual interest - was attended by Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, and on this occasion by Mr Trimble, Mr Mallon and Mr Mandelson.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mr Blair said the next meeting of the British-Irish Council in six months time in Dublin would examine progress on five cross-boundary issues - drugs, social exclusion, transport, the environment and e-commerce.

On his handshake with Ms de Brun, who holds the health and public safety portfolio in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr Blair said he hoped such gestures would soon be regarded as routine.

"Bairbre de Brun is a minister in the Northern Ireland executive, and I think it would be strange if I were not able to shake hands with her in public.

"If that's a milestone, well so be it," said Mr Blair.

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See also:
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
'New era of co-operation'
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Blair opens historic council
16 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
'British-Irish Council step forward'
17 Dec 99 |  Scotland
Dewar welcomes 'problem solving' forum
02 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
A guide to devolved powers
17 Dec 99 |  Wales
Wales pledged to 'Council of the Isles'
17 Sep 99 |  UK Politics
Labour 'divided' on English devolution

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