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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Just don't mention the war

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have still not shaken hands. That is a step too far for Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party and now first minister of the Northern Ireland assembly, but the almost surreal image of them grinning and laughing together at the opening of the assembly last Tuesday shows that the chemistry between the two men is stronger than anyone could have imagined.

When he was asked to move a little closer to McGuinness, the deputy first minister, for a photograph at the beginning of the executive meeting, Paisley quipped "not an inch", an old loyalist battle cry of resistance to nationalist demands, as he obliged. He and McGuinness sat smiling at the cameras.

In his inaugural speech, McGuinness fairly bubbled with good humour. "Ian Paisley, I want to wish you all the best as we step forward towards the greatest yet most exciting challenge of our lives." You have to pinch yourself to remember that this is the same Martin McGuinness who was in the leadership of the IRA throughout its campaign. This is the man who vowed never to sit in a British assembly, but who now sees it as a way to build a better Northern Ireland. Ever combative, in an interview the morning he took office Paisley turned his sights away from the IRA and onto the British ministers who had ruled Northern Ireland while he equivocated on power-sharing. "I look forward to the challenge and our job will be to undo the mistakes of people who were really only squatters in our country, who came in and ran out again," he declared. He also poured scorn on the "many well-placed people from outside Northern Ireland" who he had heard "trying to emphasise the contribution they claim to have made to bringing it [a settlement] about".

"If those same people had only allowed the Ulster people to settle the matter without their interference and insistence on their way and their way alone, we would have come to this day a lot earlier," Paisley said.

Curious words from a man, who until a few weeks ago, refused to even speak directly to Sinn Féin, maintaining it would "stick in my gut" to do so. But we live in curious times. Shoehorning this odd couple into partnership has relied on firm pressure from many matchmakers from outside Northern Ireland. One was Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, who was probably the intended butt of Paisley's comments. He set deadline after deadline which Paisley breached as a matter of principle but which in the end inched things forward.

Then there was Tony Blair, who devoted an enormous amount of time over the past 10 years to solving the Northern Ireland problem and even borrowed religious books from Paisley to help build their relationship.

"I know you will miss your talks with me," Paisley said, when he played host to Blair in his new office at Stormont. "When you're going out as a young man, I'm coming in like an aul grandad," The prime minister replied: "I should maybe have learnt a lesson from you and waited until I was 80."

Bertie Ahern, the Irish taoiseach, also helped to push the process forward and his contribution will be recognised when he addresses both houses of parliament at Westminster on Tuesday.

Ahern enraged Sinn Féin by dropping his country's constitutional claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday agreement and last Friday was host to Paisley at a huge heritage centre his government has built at the site of the battle of the Boyne, the 1690 victory of King William III over the Jacobites that is celebrated by loyalist marchers each July.

But the crucial last push may have been delivered by Michael McDowell, Ahern's coalition partner, who has endeared himself to unionists because of his hard line on terrorism and law and order. On the final evening of a negotiating conference in St Andrews last October, McDowell took the DUP representatives aside and explained to them just what would happen if there was no agreement to share power.

He put flesh on a "Plan B" that would have meant increased Irish government involvement in Northern Ireland. The message was clear – if Paisley could not bring himself to make the necessary compromises, then things would move in another and less palatable direction. These contributions are not much mentioned in the DUP's current version of history where power-sharing with Sinn Féin is seen as Paisley's crowning achievement after a career devoted to opposing it.

He recalled, in his inaugural speech, being arrested and held overnight for protesting when the Good Friday agreement was signed. The other ghost at Tuesday's feast was Northern Ireland's first power-sharing experiment in 1974. Then Brian Faulkner, the unionist leader, and Gerry Fitt, of the SDLP, formed a cabinet following a deal hammered out at Sunningdale.

The current agreement has been described as "Sunningdale for slow learners" but at the time Paisley and McGuinness both opposed it. McGuinness's opposition was purely theoretical because he was at the time in jail for IRA membership and for withholding information on acts of terrorism. Paisley backed a strike which, together with IRA pressure, brought Northern Ireland to its knees and spelt the end of that first power-sharing experiment.

It was an irony not lost on Dermot Nesbitt, a junior minister under Faulkner, who noted that Paisley and McGuinness held a tea party for Blair, Ahern and Hain in Faulkner's old office.

None of the surviving ministers from that period was prominent on Tuesday: it was as if Sunningdale had never happened. Seamus Mallon, of the SDLP, and David Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist leader who is now a Tory peer, who attempted to share power more recently, were also absent.

Thousands of deaths might have been avoided had Sunningdale been allowed to stick by the IRA and the DUP. The new arrangement is built on firmer foundations because there is no significant force outside it. Will this deal stick? Almost certainly it will last for the next four years during which Paisley, health permitting, says that he intends to remain first minister. The Sinn Féin and DUP leadership have so much credibility invested in this that neither can afford to take the blame for bringing it down.

There will be tensions. Sinn Féin is suggesting that statues of dead republican heroes be raised at Stormont to balance the unionist imagery. The Irish language, which Sinn Féin wants to see used on a bilingual basis by government, and the future of the 11-plus examination are another two issues that divide the parties.

However, they are united on a range of social and economic issues and as the demands of balancing budgets, keeping sight of priorities and negotiating with the Treasury for money begin to bite, there will be less time to grandstand on divisive tribal issues.

McGuinness and Paisley have strong teams of ministers and they are personable politicians with a similar sense of humour. It's natural that they will get on.

Paisley, now 81, has a fearsome public persona but few people who actually know him dislike him and friends say he has mellowed a little in recent years. "The point is he is very good company – women love him and he commands loyalty in men," one acquaintance said. "That doesn't come across on the TV footage of his shouting 'Never, Never, Never' but it is the key to his success."

Holding their first joint reception, McGuinness also came over as a people person, working the room, full of small talk about fishing, his aspiration as a poet and his family roots in Co Donegal. They look like perfect partners, just as long as nobody mentions the war.

May 13, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on May 13, 2007.