Two politicians in Northern Ireland representing the largest Protestant and Catholic parties are preparing to jointly govern the British province after decades of violence and animosity. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the amazing turn of events.
First it was the historic meeting in Belfast last week (March 26) between Ian Paisley, leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Both men sat side by side and announced they have agreed to govern the British province beginning May 8.
Then this week, another important milestone on the road to peace in Northern Ireland: Paisley traveled to Dublin (April 4) and for the first time ever, in public, shook the hand of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
Analysts say the public handshake was an important symbol, given the fact that Paisley had for decades resisted any role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland. In 1985, he accused then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of treason after she signed the Anglo-Irish Accord giving Ireland a consultative function in Northern Ireland. He met Ahern for the first time in 1999.
Following this week's meeting, Paisley sounded a conciliatory note.
"Some say hedges make the best neighbors - but that is not the case," he said. "I don't believe we should plant a hedge between our two countries."
Paisley met Ahern for informal talks tied to the upcoming power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein and other smaller Catholic and Protestant parties. On May 8, the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly will name a cabinet of 12 ministers to govern Northern Ireland. The first minister will be Ian Paisley - his deputy will be Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, close friend of Gerry Adams.
This will officially bring about what is known as "devolution" - transferring executive power in Northern Ireland from London to local officials in the British province. Northern Ireland has been under direct London rule since 2002 after a previous power-sharing agreement collapsed. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement set up local governing institutions for Northern Ireland.
Analysts say people in Northern Ireland are cautiously optimistic about the success of the power-sharing accord.
Noel Doran is editor of Belfast's Irish News - a newspaper reflecting the views of the predominantly Catholic, nationalist community that favors union with Ireland. He says his readers are not going to get overly excited by one single development.
"We've had the IRA ceasefire of 1994 followed by loyalist ceasefires; we've had negotiations between republicans and the British governments; we've had the Good Friday Agreement; we've had the introduction of devolution; we've had the collapse of devolution on a number of occasions and now we see it back again - there is a certain amount of weariness with all the constant upheaval in political circles," he said.
Those views are echoed across the sectarian divide. Darwin Templeton is editor of the Belfast Newsletter, a daily with close ties to the pro-British, protestant community. He says for some, memories are hard to forget - especially for those who have been victims of the more than three decades of sectarian strife known as "The Troubles."
"We had an interview this morning with a former police officer who had been very badly injured in a terrorist attack during 'The Troubles,'" he said. "And he said that he felt that he had served his country, that he had answered his country's call to arms to defend his country against what he saw as terrorist aggression. He had been maimed as result of that - and he said that now he simply could not accept that the people, who were at the very least apologists for the terrorists who attacked him, were now preparing for government. He said I'm sorry, I can see all the arguments - but I just can't accept this."
The police officer quoted by Templeton was referring to - among others - Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. He is believed to have held senior positions in the Irish Republican Army - allegations which he has denied.
More than 3,700 people have been killed in Northern Ireland's sectarian violence. Analysts say with the upcoming power-sharing agreement, Catholic and Protestant politicians will have a chance to shape Northern Ireland's future peacefully, as the threat of violence recedes even more.