This Moment Flies in the Face of History. It Proves Our War Is over ; THE MIRACLE OF BELFAST

Article excerpt

It is the closest thing to a miracle that Belfast has seen: the sight of the two veterans, Protestant patriarch and iconic republican, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to vow that they will leave the past behind.

It flew in the face of all history, all experience and all intuition to think of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness promising to run Northern Ireland together for the benefit of all its people.

Reporting in Belfast for many years, I had watched the pair at close quarters, but until recently never dreamt they could get together: they seemed to occupy different political planets. Yet it happened. Two warriors of the Troubles, whose natural habitat seemed to be conflict, stood side-by-side in Stormont and affirmed to the world that the war is over and that a new era of co-operation is at hand.

Another minor miracle was that they did so with every appearance of enthusiasm and mutual respect. Far from any hint of reluctance, they projected that they are looking forward to a new era with great relish. For a Belfast journalist this is all very confusing and disorientating. They were so far apart that they only rarely bothered to attack each other: they simply were hardly on each other's radar screens.

Over the years I heard them, repeatedly and routinely, send out the message that there would be no compromise, no sell-out, no surrender. But now there is a new rhetoric and all of the old certainties are disappearing.

Ian Paisley, now Northern Ire-land's First Minister, spoke of "a time when hate will no longer rule". Martin McGuinness, ex-IRA and now his new deputy, spoke of peace and reconciliation. They both clearly meant it. Few doubt these guys could have fought on forever, fortified by all the centuries of antagonism, yet the peace process came along to rescue them, and Northern Ireland. Among those who regard it all as a bit of a miracle was Mr Paisley himself, the one- time opponent of the peace process who was sworn in to head it yesterday.

In Stormont, the scene of so many failed initiatives which has finally become the scene of a spectacularly successful one, Mr Paisley began his speech by saying: "If you had told me some time ago that I would be standing here to take this office, I would have been totally unbelieving." Witnessing this were two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, basking yesterday in their status as those who stuck with the peace process against such odds and steered it through so many crises.

Yet the recent history of the process, after years of taking two steps forward followed by one step back, has been studded not with setbacks but with minor miracles. The IRA has gone away, and the big loyalist groups are fading. Anglo-Irish relations are in a golden era, Unionists are developing friendly relations with the Irish Republic. Soldiers have disappeared from the streets, republicans support the police, and there are few funerals. Northern Ireland suffered through 3,700 deaths: for a journalist, the reporting of breakthroughs must always be tempered by the knowledge that, brighter future or not, the new era will not restore those lost lives. Yet there are now many minor miracles, along with the new acceptance that the two sides should share power. This settlement received overwhelming endorsement in a recent election. The world, and almost everyone in Northern Ireland, now simply wants the Paisley-McGuinness alliance to get on with it.

And if Mr McGuinness can casually stroll into Mr Paisley's Stormont office, as he did yesterday, then it is difficult for any doubters to argue that he is unfit for government office.

Already the two are working closely together and presenting a common front against the first thing they have identified as a common target: Gordon Brown. They want a peace dividend, and the fact that their campaign is a joint one means Mr Brown will find it hard to send them away empty-handed. …