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10 May 2007 Edition

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Peace process : Smiles all round as Stormont is transformed

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams arrive at Stormont

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams arrive at Stormont

Savouring a moment in history

An Phoblacht’s LAURA FRIEL was at Stormont on Tuesday to witness the extraordinary scenes as Ministers in the new, power-sharing Six County Executive took office. Here, she gives her personal observations and feelings of a momentous day in Irish politics.


The atmosphere was infectious. There were smiles and good humour amongst the many guests and dignitaries. And what a glorious collection of people, all happy to spend a day to wish us well on the journey ahead. Irish, British, American, South African, Palestinian and Basque.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, Prime Minister Tony Blair, US Senator Edward Kennedy, ANC Minister Ronnie Kasrills had all played their part in the step-by-step process of the last decade but now the pace of change was beginning to quicken.
And then, the republicans. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different strands of the Movement in one gathering. Key republican figures like Brian Keenan and Bobby Storey; veteran republicans like Annie Cahill, Gaelgeoirí like Eddie Keenan; former POWs like Rosena Brown, Sinn Féin representatives from North and South aswell as husbands, wives, mothers, parents and children. 
Gathered in Sinn Fein’s party rooms to watch the proceedings on a big screen, visitors were as excitable as a parcel of children anticipating a school trip. No one was underestimating the enormity of the task ahead but, today, just today, there was time to catch the moment.
And it felt as if we were standing on the threshold of a new era. Behind us stretched years of endeavour and sacrifice with the memories of all those comrades who could not stand beside us but whose contribution made the day possible. In front of us all the possibilities that human agency can shape.
In the debating chamber the demands of parliamentary procedure couldn’t dampen the atmosphere. Rising to nominate the new Speaker, Ian Paisley referred to the rotund DUP MLA William Hay as a “stout defender”. Moments later Gerry Adams nominated Francie Molloy as deputy Speaker with the quip “He’s also stout”. The chamber collapsed into laughter.
And then, in the Great Hall, down the marble staircase they all came – Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. To the strains of Brian Kennedy You raise me up performed by the music and dance group ‘The Sky’s the Limit’ the four leaders stood. It was a symbolic moment, a sombre photo-opportunity, historic. Tony broke first with his big toothy grin and then Martin was smiling and waving.
Both Paisley and McGuinness spoke of a journey. For the DUP leader it was a case of “today, at long last we are starting upon the road which I believe will take us to lasting peace” .
While Sinn Féin’s Chief Negotiator acknowledged that the “road we are embarking on will have many twists and turns”. McGuinness wished Paisley “all the best as we step forward towards the greatest yet most exciting challenge of our lives”.
“In politics, as in life, it is a truism that no one can ever have one hundred per cent of what they desire. They must make a verdict when they believe they have achieved enough to move things forward. I believe we are now able to make progress,” said Paisley.
McGuinness set the task ahead as a “strive towards a society moving from division and disharmony to one that celebrates our diversity and is determined to provide a better future for all our people”.
Reconciliation was also on the minds of the speakers, for Paisley it was about replacing hostility with neighbourliness while McGuinness spoke of “cherishing all of our children equally”. Blair acknowledged relations between Ireland and Britain had been transformed. Ahern declared a “new era”.
And everyone was looking towards a future full of potential.
“The chance at last to escape those holy chains of history, to make history anew, not as a struggle between warring traditions but as a search for the future shared, held in common and bound by goodwill and peace,” said Blair.
“Here – in Belfast, on this day, we mark the historic beginning of a new era. An era founded on peace and partnership. An era of new politics and new realities. Between British and Irish, nationalist and unionist we are now agreed a vital consensus on our future together,” said Taoiseach Bertie Ahern,
“The events that we have had the privilege of witnessing are a powerful statement that peace is not impossible and conflict is not inevitable,” said Ahern.
“We cannot undo our sad and turbulent past. But we can and are, shaping our future in a new and better way. And in doing so we can put the divisions of the past behind us forever,” said Ahern.
And there it is – all of us poised on the threshold of a really big adventure, into a future full of the possibilities of human endeavour.  And Stormont, that great edifice of the past, transformed with music and laughter and hope.

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