I had a friend mention that he had no idea what I was referring to on the Northern Ireland power sharing that I mentioned in a previous post. Just to touch on that a little bit, here are the details. Hope this helps all not familiar with the Northern Ireland struggle to understand it a little clearer and help understand why this is such an historic moment for Ulster.
Northern Ireland, which is comprised of six of nine counties from the Ulster province, has been embattled for decades in what is locally called "The Troubles" or "The Civil Rights Struggle". It was a civil war, between Protestants or Unionists and Catholic or Nationalists. To sum it up, Nationalists want Northern Ireland to be unified with the Republic of Ireland. Unionists want it to remain part of the United Kingdom.
In general, Protestants, who are the majority in NI, consider themselves British and Catholics see themselves as Irish. What happened on May 8 was that the bitter enemies have at long last joined forces with a new Northern Ireland government.
Protestant evangelist Ian Paisley, long known as "Dr. No" for his refusal to compromise with the Roman Catholic minority, has formed an administration with Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a veteran commander in the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
They will jointly run a 12-member administration that took control of the territory's government departments from Britain. Their new shared agenda: improve hospitals, schools, roads and other services and formally cooperate with the neighboring Republic of Ireland.
Power-sharing was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord of 1998, a pact rejected by Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party at the time because it included Sinn Fein. Britain and Ireland toiled to bring the factions together after 2003, when voters made them the dominant parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the foundation stone for cooperation.
Paisley's conversion to compromise became possible because the IRA finally convinced him it would no longer try to oust Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom by force. The IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, has not been implicated in significant violence since. This year they have agreed with its Sinn Fein allies to accept the authority of the Northern Ireland police.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair' who made brokering peace a top priority since rising to power in 1997, paid particular tribute to Paisley — noting his stubborn stand had forced the Sinn Fein-IRA movement to go farther than many thought possible.
"I lost count of how many times I was told he would never accept sharing power," Blair said of Paisley. "But he told me, in the right circumstances, that he would. He said he wanted to see Northern Ireland at peace and would not flinch from doing what was necessary to get that peace — on the only terms that he thought would endure. I believed him, and he has been true to his word."
Paisley's Democratic Unionists hold five Cabinet posts and Sinn Fein four, while the moderate Protestants of the Ulster Unionists got two and the moderate Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party one. Positions were allocated on the basis of each party's strength in the Assembly.
Even though all of Northern Ireland knew for weeks this day was coming, it still stunned observers to see Paisley, 81, and McGuinness, 56, smiling beside each other alongside Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
Paisley shared the amazement.
"If you had told me some time ago that I would be standing here to take this office, I would have been totally unbelieving," Paisley told a crowd of jubilant, even giddy politicians and other dignitaries, including U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, packed into the lobby of Stormont Parliamentary Building.
"From the depths of my heart, I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule," Paisley said. "How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in this province. Today we have begun the work of planting, and we will all look for the great and blessed harvest."
McGuinness, renowned as an organizer but not for oratorical flair, said the road ahead for Northern Ireland will bring "many twists and turns. It is however a road which we have chosen."
Turning to Paisley, McGuinness wished his new partner "the best as we step forward towards the greatest and most exciting challenge of our lives."
Back in the 1960s headwaters of the sectarian conflict, Northern Ireland was governed exclusively by Protestants — and Catholics were demanding equal rights in housing, jobs and the vote. Extremists on both sides opted for violence.
Paisley, dismissed in those days by most Protestant politicians as a lunatic bigot, led Protestant mobs against Catholic marchers, while his hate-filled speeches fanned support for outlawed Protestant paramilitary groups.
He spent time in prison for organizing illegal protests, but rebounded to build a Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, that campaigned on a promise to "smash Sinn Fein." He was known for thundering "Not an inch!", "No surrender!" and "Never!" when urged to compromise.
McGuinness, a high school dropout and apprentice butcher, joined a revived IRA that developed new tactics, particularly car bombs, to ravage Northern Ireland and reduce the territory to near-anarchy in the early 1970s, the bloodiest years.
He spent three years in prison for IRA membership, but emerged to become a senior commander committed to making the IRA an unbreakable force of small, secretive cells.
Throughout the conflict, about 3,700 people died and tens of thousands were maimed in Northern Ireland, England and the Irish Republic before Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, McGuinness and other senior IRA figures persuaded the underground organization to cease fire in 1997.
The Good Friday accord of 1998, supported by Sinn Fein even though it contained a target for the IRA to disarm by mid-2000, foresaw a future of compromise centered on Protestants and Catholics sharing power. It assumed traditional moderate parties would stay solidly in the majority.
But when the IRA initially refused to surrender any of its Libyan-supplied arsenal, Protestant support faded for Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, the Protestant pragmatist who led power-sharing, and toward Paisley, who decried the Good Friday pact for conceding too much to Sinn Fein.
A 2003 election for the Northern Ireland Assembly produced twin triumphs for Paisley and Sinn Fein, a seemingly impossible combination.
But Blair and Ahern coaxed the two sides together in a seemingly endless series of summits, bluntly telling Sinn Fein leaders they must meet Paisley's demand for a cast-iron end to the IRA. Eventually, it happened to Paisley's satisfaction.
With the IRA fading away and Sinn Fein helping govern part of the United Kingdom, Blair — who is expected to announce his retirement from office this week — called on the crowd to remember the horrors of Northern Ireland's yesteryear's.
"We need to remember what it was like — to marvel at how it was changed," he said.