On March 26, 2007, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams commit themselves to forming a powersharing executive by May 8, 2007 after engaging directly for the first time at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair hail this first meeting and agreement as a historic, reconciliatory, and transforming moment in British-Irish history.
The government had set this date as a final deadline for a restoration of power-sharing before direct rule from London is restored permanently and now has to rush emergency legislation through the House of Commons to prevent this.
“After a long and difficult time in our province, I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead for our province,” Paisley tells reporters, as he sits at a conference table next to Adams. The agreement “marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island,” Adams agrees, but adds that he finds it “disappointing” that Northern Ireland‘s political institution cannot be restored immediately.
British prime minister Tony Blair hails the agreement, saying “This is a very important day for the people of Northern Ireland but also for the people and the history of these islands.” After talking by phone with his Irish counterpart, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, he tells reporters, “In a sense, everything we have done over the last ten years has been a preparation for this moment, because the people of Northern Ireland have spoken through the election. They have said we want peace and power-sharing and the political leadership has then come in behind that and said we will deliver what people want.”
In Ireland, Ahern calls the day’s developments “unprecedented and very positive,” and says both governments will cooperate with the new May 8 date for devolution.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, says a one clause emergency bill will be put through parliament with the agreement of opposition parties, and will need royal assent before midnight the following evening to prevent the dissolution of the Stormont assembly. He describes the day’s events as “really, really momentous.”
“Today the clouds have lifted and the people can see the future,” Hain tells BBC Radio 4‘s The World at One. “These pictures of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams will resonate around the world. They are a graphic manifestation of the power of politics over bigotry and conflict, bitterness and horror.”
The crucial meeting sees delegations from the DUP and Sinn Féin spend an hour together inside a room at Stormont to hammer out the final agreement for a return to power-sharing. Afterwards, both leaders talk about the work still needing to be done, including regular meetings between Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as the de facto first and deputy first ministers.
Clearly conscious of the historical significance of their talks, Paisley and Adams speak of the suffering caused by the decades of inter-community violence and their responsibility to ensure permanent peace and reconciliation. Northern Ireland’s politicians must “never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, emerging,” Paisley says. “I want to make it clear that I am committed to delivering not only for those who voted for the DUP but for all the people of Northern Ireland. We must not allow our justified loathing for the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children,” he adds.
Adams says there is now new hope for the future, following the previous “sad history of orange and green.” He adds, “There are still many challenges, many difficulties, to be faced. But let us be clear: the basis of the agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP follows Ian Paisley’s unequivocal and welcome commitment to support and participate fully in the political institutions on May 8. We’ve all come a very long way in the process of peace making and national reconciliation. We are very conscious of the many people who have suffered. We owe it to them to build the best future possible.”
The proposal for the historic meeting comes after a frantic weekend of consultation in Belfast and Berlin, where Blair and Ahern are attending a ceremony to mark 50 years of the European Union. Both prime ministers had repeatedly insisted the assembly would be dissolved if no agreement on an executive had been reached by today’s legal deadline. Britain is forced into a last-minute change of strategy after Paisley’s DUP agrees in principle on March 24 to share power with Sinn Féin, but demands an extension of the deadline for the formation of the executive until May.
The DUP, which is badly split, says they need the additional time to see if Sinn Féin will comply with its commitment to cooperate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Until now Paisley’s DUP has always refused to meet Sinn Féin. Each represents what used to be seen as the two extremes of Northern Ireland sectarian politics.
(From: “Paisley and Adams agree deal” by Peter Walker and Owen Bowcott, The Guardian (www.theguardian.com), March 26, 2007 | Pictured: Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams hold their first face-to-face talks. Photograph: Paul Faith/ PA)