New era begins for Northern Ireland as ex-rivals take power

Times Staff Writer

A militant Presbyterian preacher and a former leader of the Irish Republican Army were sworn in as the joint heads of a new government in Northern Ireland on Tuesday in a move to conclude more than 30 years of conflict between Protestants loyal to Britain and Catholics who fought for a united Ireland.

The two still-suspicious leaders did not single each other out in the giddy handshakes shared among the new Northern Irish officials. But as the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein took their oaths, both sides hailed the day as the final end to the British province’s so-called Troubles, the violent period from 1969 to 2001 that claimed more than 3,500 lives. In taking office, the two swore to oppose discrimination, promote connections with Britain and Ireland and uphold the work of the police.

The event marked a crowning achievement for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spent 10 mostly frustrating years pushing the parties toward peace. He is expected to announce this week that he will step down in the summer, having brought the conflict’s most intractable activists into a common government.

“Northern Ireland was synonymous with conflict. People felt that it could not be done -- indeed, sometimes even that it shouldn’t be done, that the compromises involved were too ugly,” Blair said. “Yet in the end it was done. And this holds a lesson for conflict everywhere.”


Paisley, the 81-year-old Protestant leader of Northern Ireland’s pro-British hard-liners, for years was known as “Dr. No” for his opposition to making peace with the Roman Catholics who favored leaving Britain and joining the Irish Republic. His most famous words are his declaration of “Never, never, never” in response to the 1985 accord between Britain and Ireland that set the course for self-determination and gave Ireland an advisory role in the province.

Paisley recalled that he was detained temporarily by civilian authorities on the night in 1998 when the peace process here took one of its first major steps forward with the Good Friday agreement. “If anyone had told me that I would be standing here today to take this office, I would have been totally unbelieving. I am here by the vote of the majority of the electorate of our beloved province,” he said.

“In politics, as in life, it is a truism that no one can ever have 100% of what they desire. They must make a verdict when they believe they have achieved enough to move things forward. Unlike at any other time, I believe we are now able to make progress.”

In the final rounds of negotiations leading up to Tuesday’s ceremony, Paisley won what he viewed as the most important concession: McGuinness’ oath to support the police and urge his community to support them as well. For years, many of the province’s Catholics saw the police as a party to the conflict.

McGuinness himself served six months in prison in Ireland for possession of explosives and ammunition, and he later was banned under terrorism laws from entering Britain.

Sinn Fein, the political arm of the now-disbanded IRA, is increasingly turning its attention to elections in the Republic of Ireland, which covers the southern four-fifths of the island, as a step toward winning its goal of a united territory. Thus, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams nominated McGuinness, his deputy, as deputy first minister in the new Northern Ireland government.

“The road we are embarking on will have many twists and turns,” McGuinness said. “It is, however, a road which we have chosen and which is supported by the vast majority of our people. In the recent elections, they voted for a new political era based on peace and reconciliation.”

The Good Friday agreement, whose parties were pushed to a settlement by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) during the Clinton administration, led to a change in Ireland’s constitution removing that nation’s claim to the territory and created a Northern Ireland Assembly. Both sides renounced violence as a means of settling the conflict.

The moderate Protestant and Catholic leaders who helped negotiate the agreement won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. But the two, Protestant David Trimble, then head of the Ulster Unionist Party, and Catholic John Hume, former leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, were beset with opposition from radicals within their own movements. In the end, it took the naysayers, Paisley and Adams, to negotiate what looks to be a durable peace.

Under the agreement, Northern Ireland remains part of Britain unless -- Sinn Fein would say until -- a majority in the province votes to leave Britain and join Ireland. But both Ireland and Britain have a role in the province through separate councils.

“I have no doubt that we’re now in a situation of lasting peace,” Hume said after the ceremonies, during which Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern watched with other dignitaries from a public viewing gallery. “I think it’s a very moving day for all of us in Northern Ireland, given what the people of Northern Ireland have suffered during the last 30 years.”

The two sides are working in unison already to persuade British finance minister Gordon Brown to expand the multibillion-dollar “peace dividend” London is extending to the province to get the new government off the ground. But they will almost certainly clash soon on other issues, such as performance testing in the schools, which they pledged to work on through normal channels of government.

“The whole picture isn’t rosy. We will have huge problems ahead,” Gerry Kelly, a junior minister for Sinn Fein, said in an interview. “But I do think to the surprise of everyone, people who’ve looked at us talking over the past few weeks have used words to me like they’re astounded, it’s unbelievable. And in a word, that’s true.

“We have a working relationship, and I hope that relationship will build when we come to the issues. And where we can’t agree, that’s the time we’ll have to look for a compromise where we can all agree.”

The violence in Northern Ireland erupted in 1969 with civil rights marches launched by mainly Catholic nationalists who felt discriminated against in elections, jobs, housing and laws that allowed for the internment of citizens.

Fighting broke out in several parts of the province, quickly expanding to encompass the police and army, loyalist paramilitaries and the IRA, which vowed to wage armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland. IRA bombs planted as far away as London and Germany became a fixture of the conflict.

In the years of negotiations that followed the peak of the violence, the IRA implemented a cease-fire and gave up its weapons, winning release of prisoners who renounced violence. Last week, the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant group, moved in a similar direction, announcing that recruitment, military training and targeting had ended.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has long been an activist in the Northern Ireland peace process, also attended Tuesday’s ceremony as part of a U.S. delegation.

“This is an extraordinary time, when we look at the challenges which exist to our democratic institutions around the world. The people of Northern Ireland got it. Their leaders got it,” Kennedy told reporters after the meeting.

“Even though there were many that thought it extremely unlikely that it would ever happen, it has happened,” he said.

Like the new leaders, many members of the Cabinet inducted Tuesday have long histories. Paisley’s top lieutenant, Peter Robinson, will serve as finance minister and may well succeed Paisley if he ever retires. He once faced criminal charges in Ireland for his role in a 1986 military-style parade aimed at highlighting lax border security.

Kelly, the Sinn Fein junior minister, served 13 years for his role in the car bombing of London’s Old Bailey courthouse in 1973, which killed one person and injured nearly 200. Kelly went on a 205-day hunger strike, during which he was force-fed by prison guards 170 times, and then joined 37 other republican prisoners in a spectacular 1983 break from the notorious Maze prison outside Belfast -- the largest breakout of prisoners in Europe since World War II.

He was recaptured in Amsterdam three years later and returned to Belfast, the Northern Irish capital, but was released in 1989, after which he became one of the most active leaders in the peace process.

“Everybody knows there’s a historical mistrust,” Kelly said. “So what do you do in those circumstances? You form a contract, and you both agree to adhere to that contract.”

But no one should mistake Sinn Fein’s agreement to share power with the Unionists as an abandonment of its hope of leaving Britain and joining Ireland, he added.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a continuation of our struggle,” he said. “We want a united Ireland, not just in a romantic sense, but in the sense that it will make a difference to people. This is the first time you will have an all-Ireland approach to [running] Northern Ireland.”




Some of the players

Four men who had notable roles in the three-decade Northern Ireland conflict:

Ian Paisley

Joint head of government from Democratic Unionist Party

Protestant leader who was known for years as “Dr. No” for his opposition to making peace with Catholics who favored leaving Britain and uniting with Ireland.

Martin McGuinness

Joint head of government from Sinn Fein

Former IRA leader who served six months in an Irish prison for possession of explosives and ammunition.

Peter Robinson

Paisley’s top lieutenant

Once charged in Ireland in connection with a military-style parade in 1986 aimed at highlighting lax border security.

Gerry Kelly

Junior Sinn Fein minister

Served 13 years in prison for his role in a car bombing of London’s Old Bailey courthouse in 1973, which killed one person and injured nearly 200. Was among 38 inmates who broke out of Maze prison outside Belfast in 1983.


Source: Times reporting