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New Power-Sharing Government Takes Over in Northern Ireland

A new power-sharing government has taken over administration of Northern Ireland, bringing together long-time Catholic and Protestant enemies. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Stormont, the seat of government in Belfast.

It has been nine years in the making - this power-sharing deal between mostly Catholic Republicans who want Northern Ireland free of British rule and mostly Protestant Unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom.

After much hesitation and stops and starts a new Northern Ireland administration takes over from direct British rule.

To pledge to discharge in good faith all the duties of office, commitment to non-violence (FADE) by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

The oath of office is read out. Hardline Unionist leader Ian Paisley formally accepts to take up the post of first minister.

"I affirm the terms of the pledge of office [FADE] as set out in schedule four to the Northern Ireland act of 1998," he said.

And, Republican Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister.

"I affirm the terms of the pledge of office [FADE ] as set out in schedule four to the Northern Ireland act of 1998," he said.

After an elaborate swearing-in ceremony at Stormont, there was a general call to put the violence in the past, work toward unity and fulfill the aspirations of the peoples of Northern Ireland.

"Today at long last we are starting upon the road, I emphasize starting, which I believe will take us to lasting peace in our province," said First Minister Ian Paisley. "I have not changed my unionism. The union of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom I believe is today stronger than ever but we together making a declaration, we are all aiming to build a Northern Ireland in which all can live together in peace."

Sentiments echoed moments later by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

"I am very proud as an Irish Republican, who believes in the unity of Ireland to stand here with all of you today ... as we strive for a society moving from division and disharmony to one that celebrates our diversity and is determined to provide a better future for all of our people," he said.

This power-sharing administration is the result of talks that began in 1996 and culminated in what became known as the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998.

A previous attempt to form a joint Northern Ireland administration broke down in 2002, but the agreement was revived during a historic meeting this March between Paisley and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.

For British Prime Minister Tony Blair this event in Belfast represents a major success.

"Northern Ireland was synonymous with conflict," he said. "It was felt to be intractable, the 'troubles,' not so much a dispute as a fact of life - irreconcilable differences. People felt that it could not be done, indeed sometimes that it should not be done - that the compromises involved were too ugly. Yet in the end, it was done and this holds a lesson for conflict everywhere."

The Northern Ireland handover comes just days before Mr. Blair is expected to announce he is stepping down as prime minister and leader of the Labor party.

Also at Stormont was U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, who said the occasion marked a new day, a new beginning that can serve as a model to the world.

"That you can disband militias, private armies and put aside the bomb and the bullet and through political reconciliation, hopefully carry forward the hopes and dreams of a people," he said.

Also attending the ceremonies was Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has been instrumental in keeping the Northern Ireland negotiations going.