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29 March 2007 Edition

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SF/DUP Agreement : events mark beginning of national reconciliation process

What a day!  

By Laura Friel

Martin McGuinness isn’t known as a man who is easily impressed. So when Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator emerged from Stormont, threw out his arms and exclaimed “What a day!” it was fair to conclude that something significant had been in the making.
It had taken ‘down to the wire’ discussions between Sinn Féin, the DUP and involving the British government. The engagement began on Saturday, continued on Sunday into Monday morning, achieving agreement just shortly before 11am.
The niceties of public relations were observed. No public handshake and no walking into the press conference together. The DUP had not wanted to seem too friendly. Republicans didn’t want images of face-to-face confrontation.
The resolution had been perfectly stage managed in Stormont’s wood panelled dinning room. The tables were set at right angles in a kind of ‘together but apart’ subliminal message.
But nothing could detract from the moment or the image, the mandated representatives of orange and green, seated side by side, Gerry Adams smiling and Ian Paisley Snr. looking far from unhappy. A meeting had taken place, an agreement had been achieved, a moment in history reached and the future was beckoning all of us.
In their separate statements the two leaders outlined the agreement they had reached – restoration of the power sharing institutions in six weeks, full support and full participation in all the institutions, an initial joint programme to challenge water charges and secure a financial package, meetings between the First and Deputy First Minister, participation in preparation for government and a pledge of commitment to all the people.
“On Saturday the DUP executive overwhelmingly endorsed a motion committing the party to support and participate fully in government in May of this year,” said Paisley. Significantly, Paisley described his party’s decision as “a binding resolution”. An indication that the spectacle of David Trimble running the gauntlet of a succession of no confidence motions would not be revisited by the canny DUP leadership. 
“In the past the government has set arbitrary deadlines but now, as laid out in our resolution, we, as a party, have agreed the timing, the setting up and working of the institutions. Today we have agreed with Sinn Féin that this date will be Tuesday 8 May 2007,” said Paisley.
Paisley pledged his party’s commitment to “playing a full part in all the institutions” and delivering the best future for everyone. In the run up to 8 May, the DUP was committed to “participate fully with the other parties to the executive in making full preparations” for the onset of power sharing government.
The meeting with Sinn Féin had been “an important step on the road to the setting up of an executive in six weeks time,” said Paisley and the two parties had agreed to engage in “important preparatory work” including regular meetings between the future first and deputy first minister, so that “local ministers can hit the ground running,” said the DUP leader.
Sinn Féin and the DUP had already agreed to work together to secure “the most favourable financial package possible” from the British exchequer and Dublin government. The two parties had also used their mutual opposition to the imposition of water charges to stop the British Secretary of State’s pending delivery of bills.
Referring to the past as “a long and difficult time” Paisley looked forward to the “enormous opportunities” that lie ahead which will make “a positive difference to people’s lives”.
“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,” said Paisley.
Welcoming Ian Paisley’s words, Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams said he believed the agreement reached between Sinn Féin and the DUP, together with the DUP’s “unequivocal commitment” to the restoration of political institutions on 8 May, marked the “beginning of a new era of politics on this island”.
“The discussions and agreement between our two parties shows the potential of what can now be achieved. In all of the initiatives we have taken in recent weeks we have been guided by the need to deliver for the people of Ireland. So, in our discussions we have listened very carefully to the position put forward by Ian Paisley and his colleagues,” said Adams.
“Sinn Féin is about building a new relationship between orange and green and all the other colours, where every citizen can share and have equality of ownership of a peaceful, prosperous and just future,” said Adams.
Adams said the agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP flowed from Ian Paisley’s “unequivocal and welcome commitment to support and participate fully in the political institutions on  May 8”.
“We have 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. 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.
The media reaction came first. Journalistic expectations jaded by endless peace process deadlines, and breakthroughs and setbacks, the media appeared genuinely surprised at the historic moment they had just witnessed but hours earlier had never dared imagine.
Words that had become debased by over use and misplaced enthusiasm, suddenly felt appropriate again, “dramatic”, “historic”, “a new era”.
For The Irish News the meeting between “former political enemies paving the way for power sharing was hailed as a giant step”. For the Newsletter it heralded “a new era”, “a historic deal” and “a major move for Ulster”.
Politicians, both from home and abroad, were equally enthusiastic. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern declared the meeting held the “potential to transform the future of this island.”
“The message is loud and clear that Northern Ireland has moved on, anyone with a sense of history of this island will understand the meaning of this,” said Ahern.
British PM Tony Blair said it was not only “a very important day for people in Northern Ireland”, it was also very important “for the people and history of these islands”. “Every thing we have done over the last 10 years has been a preparation for this,” said Blair.
For US Senator Edward Kennedy it was a “landmark agreement” while US Special Envoy Paula Dobriansky declared “a powerful sense of history in the making”.
As for republicans the unfolding events marked the beginning of a process of national reconciliation. What a day!

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