Byline: By ROSA PRINCE and MAURICE FITZMAURICE
FOUR decades of bloody conflict was laid to rest with laughter and cups of tea as self-government returned to the North yesterday.
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were like old buddies as they affirmed their pledges of office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Taosieach Bertie Ahern said that the people of Northern Ireland now had "a climate of real hope".
And he struck a powerful historical note when he added: "Eighty-six years ago, on June 22, 1921, when he opened Stormont, King George V said, 'I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill'.
"That is the spirit in which we assemble today - to stretch out the hand of conciliation and to renew the call for a new era of mutual respect and peace."
Mr Ahern also stressed the transformation in Anglo-Irish relations.
He said: "Here in Belfast, on this day, we mark an era of new politics and new realities. Between British and Irish, nationalist and unionist, we are now agreed on a vital consensus on our future together."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the ordinary people as "the real heroes" of the peace process.
He said people power helped seal the deal and, in his last major public event before announcing his resignation tomorrow, he added: "You have lived through the pain and suffering of the past. Many of you each day will pause to remember someone very special and very close you lost and for some the pain of that memory will be as real today as the hour and the day they were told of that loss.
"We need to remember what it was like in order to measure how it has changed. Northern Ireland was synonymous with conflict. It was felt to be intractable, the troubles not so much a dispute but a fact of life.
"This holds a lesson for conflict everywhere." Earlier, Mr Paisley, over a jovial cup of tea in his office with Mr Ahern, Mr Blair, Mr McGuinness and Secretary of State Peter Hain, joked with the PM: "You're only 54 and you're leaving office, but I'm 81 and I'm about to start again."