A New Dawn in Northern Ireland Former Enemies Join in Power-Sharing Government
The Troubles in Northern Ireland led to the deaths of 3,700 people and injured thousands of others. Now the bitter enemies of the past have come together to form a power-sharing government.
First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are all smiles after being sworn in on Tuesday.
On Tuesday Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), took office as Northern Ireland's first minister, forming an administration with his former foe, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, who now takes over as deputy leader. They will head a new 12-member administration which will take back control of government departments that had been run from London for the past five years. Allegations of intelligence gathering within Belfast's government buildings led to the collapse of the first attempt at devolved government back in 2002. Power-sharing had been the central goal of the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which had been brokered by the United States, Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
The two hard-line parties that formed the government on Tuesday were made the dominant political forces in Northern Irish politics in elections in 2003, pushing aside the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the main representatives of the Protestant and Catholic communities. While that was greeted with dismay by many at the time, commentators now agree that the fact that it is the less moderate parties who have agreed to share power augers well for the future. Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, said on Tuesday:"These are the two most polarized forces in Northern Ireland's politics, they have done the deal and that's why I believe it's here to stay for good."
Paisley always said he would not agree to join a government with Sinn Fein until he was convinced that the IRA had turned its back on terrorism for good. The group renounced violence in 2005, but it was only when Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, finally recognized the legitimacy of the North Irish police force, that the final stumbling block was removed. Britain's threat that if the two sides did not come to an agreement, it would negotiate directly with Dublin -- raising the spectre of joint sovereignty -- is thought to have finally persuaded Paisley that governing with the Catholics was the lesser evil.
Blair's Crowning Achievement
Tuesday's ceremony is also regarded as one of the greatest achievements of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is expected to announce a date this week for when he will step down and turn his office over to Finance Minister Gordon Brown. Both he and the Irish Premier Bertie Ahern were in office back in 1998 when the power-sharing agreement was first brokered, an agreement that Paisley initially boycotted. Since then, during a steady round of summits and meetings, the two premiers have slowly coaxed the two sides in Northern Ireland to agree to govern together.
Blair paid tribute to Paisley, suggesting that his stubbornness had forced Sinn Fein to completely embrace the political process. "He said he wanted to see Northern Ireland at peace on the only terms that he thought would endure."
The image of the Paisley, now 81, and McGuinness, smiling together on Tuesday during a jovial if at times tense swearing-in ceremony, was something many on both islands thought they would never see. The two men have been dominant in Northern Irish politics for decades. Paisley, the fire-and-brimstone preacher, who set up his own Free Presbyterian Church in the 1950s, has long been viewed with deep suspicion by Catholics. But on Tuesday, Paisley positively embraced the idea of power-sharing. "I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule," he said. "Today we have begun the work of planting, and we will all look for the great and blessed harvest."
McGuinness, a former top commander of the IRA, became convinced in the 1990s, along with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, of the need to reject violence and pursue a political strategy. By that time, the conflict, known as "The Troubles," had claimed the lives of over 3,700 people and maimed thousands of others. On Tuesday McGuinness said he wished Paisley all the best as they began "the greatest, yet most exciting, challenge of our lives."
Northern Ireland's Conflict Comes to an End
Contrary to outside perceptions, the conflict was never a religious war, rather it stemmed from the legacy of colonialism and sectarian discrimination. The Protestants, whose ancestors had been settled in the province by the English crown in the 16th and 17th centuries, had been determined to defend their privileged status. In the 1960s the Catholics, inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, began to demand equal rights in terms of housing, employment and voting. Up until the end of the 1960s only homeowners were allowed to vote in the local elections -- and these were predominantly Protestants. The killing of unarmed demonstrators by British soldiers on what became known as "Bloody Sunday" in 1972 escalated the existing tensions between the communities and led to a spiral of violence, terrorism, and tit-for-tat killings that continued up until the late 1990s.
While it would be foolhardy to underestimate the remaining animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, the use of violence has been now been shunned by all but the most extreme members of both communities. The sight of Paisley and McGuinness smiling and joking side by side on Tuesday is testament to the sea change in Northern Irish politics.
While Blair can now bow out with at least one part of his political legacy intact, Ahern faces a tough battle for re-election when the Republic goes to the polls on May 24. He is currently facing probing questions about his personal finances and will be happy to point to his part in achieving power-sharing in Northern Ireland. But with Sinn Fein also campaigning in the Republic, and expected to take votes away from Ahern's center-right Fianna Fail party, the Taoiseach could soon be faced with his own version of power-sharing in Dublin.