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Northern Ireland Moves Forward

Two leading politicians in Northern Ireland representing the largest Protestant and Catholic parties have agreed to jointly govern the British province. What has brought the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein together after decades of violence and animosity?

It was a truly historic event: two bitter enemies sitting side by side, agreeing to put aside their differences and form a joint administration to govern Northern Ireland. The meeting last week [March 26th] in Belfast was the first time ever that Ian Paisley, leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, met face-to-face with Gerry Adams - - leader of the Sinn Fein party, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

In his remarks, Paisley sounded a conciliatory note. "We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children. In looking to that future, we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are - - please God - - emerging," said Paisley.

Adams echoed those remarks. "We are very conscious of the many people who have suffered. We owe it to them to build the best future possible. It is a time for generosity, a time to be mindful of the common good and of the future of all our people," said Adams.

A Major Turning Point

Analysts say the meeting at Stormont - - now housing the Northern Ireland Assembly - - would have been unthinkable even several years ago.

Darwin Templeton, the editor of the Belfast News Letter, a daily newspaper with close ties to the Unionist or pro-British community, says, "We have had the word 'historic' thrown at us at virtually every juncture here in the last eight or so years. We've had a lot of big days at Stormont. We've had a lot of breakthroughs, a lot of crises. But I think even the most hardened cynical hack in our newspaper here found themselves gazing open-mouthed at the TV screens at the sight of these two traditional foes - - Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley - - sitting side by side, basically hosting a joint press conference. That was quite remarkable."

Adams and Paisley come from the extreme wings of their political traditions. Paisley has been a towering figure on Northern Ireland's unionist and Protestant political landscape for more than 35 years. Fiercely opposed to the Catholic Church, he has denounced every accord that made any kind of accommodation with the Catholic minority - - including the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that set up local governing institutions such as the Northern Ireland Assembly. His steadfast opposition earned him the nickname "Doctor No."

Gerry Adams is believed to have held senior positions in the Irish Republican Army - - or IRA - - but has denied those allegations. He was elected President of Sinn Fein in 1983 and he helped deliver the first IRA ceasefire in 1994. Since that time, Adams has gradually moved the radical nationalists - or republicans - into the political arena. In 2005, the IRA declared a permanent ceasefire.

Malachi O'Doherty, a political commentator in Belfast, says only Adams and Paisley could have reached an agreement to share power. "They have an experience now and a maturity in the political field that hardly anyone has anything comparable to," says O'Doherty. "And they have found each other in the darkness - they have been eyeballing each other across a wasteland of their own making. And they now have come to a point where they see - - and to be fair to Gerry Adams, he saw it first - - that the only way to actually bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland is for the Catholic and Protestant communities to govern jointly."

The Politics of Change

O'Doherty says a key reason Paisley and Adams can now work together is that since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein have emerged as the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, gaining the most seats in the province's assembly.

"Sinn Fein has started off in the peace process representing about 10 percent of the population ion Northern Ireland - - about a quarter of the Catholic community. Now it represents a majority of the Catholic community," says O'Doherty. "That means it cannot but represent the center of gravity of the Catholic community which has always been anti-violence and has always been in favor of stability and has always been prepared to go very slowly on asserting a united Ireland. Similarly, Ian Paisley, once he monopolizes the center of unionism, has to speak like a centrist, otherwise he loses those people," says O'Doherty.

Experts say the big losers on the Northern Ireland political front over the past few years have been the two moderate parties: the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party. Their leaders - - John Hume and David Trimble - - shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, given in recognition of their work shaping the Good Friday Agreement.

John Alderdice, former speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, says that is one of the ironies of the peace process - - not only in Northern Ireland. "It is not [former South African President Frederik Willem] de Klerk who survived to get all the benefits of South Africa. [Former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev did not survive very long after perestroika and the changes in the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new Russia. I'm afraid it's not always the person who can see the vision and try to take people forward. To put it in biblical terms, it's not Moses who gets to the Promised Land, it's his successors."

Trimble is now a member of the British Parliament's House of Lords and John Hume is out of politics.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.