By Eamon Quinn and Alan Cowell
Protestant leader Reverend Ian Paisley, left, and the Sinn Fein
President, Gerry Adams, during a press conference in Belfast on Monday.
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The leaders of Northern Ireland’s dominant political and religious
parties, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and the Protestant leader Reverend
Ian Paisley, held face-to-face negotiations on Monday and agreed to
work toward a resumption of the province’s power-sharing authority by
The agreement, announced by the two men sitting close together at a
diamond-shaped table in the Stormont Parliament building, meant that
the province will not meet a March 26 deadline set by Britain and
Ireland to end a four-year suspension of the local government and
But it was welcomed in London as a "moment that we will remember," a
spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said, speaking in return for
"Let us be clear – if there’s a consensus about the way forward, the
British government isn’t going to stand in the way of that consensus,"
the spokesman said.
After reading statements in front of a live television camera, Adams
and Paisley shuffled their papers but did not shake hands. Nonetheless,
the notion of the two men, who have been bitter rivals and adversaries
over the long period of Northern Ireland’s sectarian strife, sitting
almost side by side was seen by many analysts as historic.
"This meeting represents an important step on the road to the
setting-up of a power-sharing executive in six weeks," Paisley said.
The two sides who struck the agreement remain deeply opposed in
their political aims. Paisley’s party wants to continue the links
between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, while Sinn Fein seeks a
Both men said their agreement could herald the beginning of what
Adams called a "new era" after decades of bloodletting before the Good
Friday agreement of 1998.
Since then, Britain has been pressing the rival groups to cement the agreement by abandoning long-held mutual antipathies.
Between now and May 8, the two sides would hold meetings on the
details of restoring the power-sharing executive, they said, and would
jointly press the British government for an improved package of
incentives to bolster the province’s economy, which is heavily
dependent on British subsidies.
Referring to his party, which is affiliated to the Irish Republican
Army, and to Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, Adams said: "There
are still many difficulties to be faced but let it be clear – the basis
of the agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP follows Ian Paisley’s
unequivocal and welcome commitment to support and participate fully in
the political institutions on May 8."
It is not totally clear why that date has been chosen. It would
place the restoration of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland
between local elections in Scotland and Wales and a national election
expected several weeks later in the Irish Republic.
Eamon Quinn reported from Belfast and Alan Cowell from London