Protestant and Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland's unity government celebrated their first full four-year term in power Wednesday _ and lauded Ian Paisley, the unlikely peacemaker who made it possible, on his effective retirement day.
Paisley, a stern anti-Catholic evangelist who spent decades rallying pro-British Protestants against compromise, stunned the world in 2007 by agreeing to forge a coalition alongside senior Irish Republican Army veterans. Power-sharing was the central aim of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998. The polar-opposite combination has governed Northern Ireland with surprising harmony for the past four years.
The Northern Ireland Assembly that elects the administration is being dissolved Thursday in preparation for a May 5 election in the British territory. Wednesday featured the last debate in an elected chamber for the 84-year-old Paisley _ who noted that this local government was not ending in chaos and acrimony, as 1999-2002 attempts at power-sharing repeatedly did.
Paisley said the 108-member Belfast assembly "was democratically elected and it has completed a full term. And we're not being thrown out by English politicians. We're going to our people to get a renewed mandate."
Paisley personally won't _ he has already stepped down as a member of the British and European parliaments and as leader of the Democratic Unionists, a party of hard-line Protestant protest that he founded in 1970 and watched grow over the past decade into the most popular in Northern Ireland.
Those lauding him included Peter Robinson, who succeeded him in 2008 as leader of both the government and the Democratic Unionists; and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the senior Catholic politician who spent decades as a commander of Paisley's archenemy the IRA.
The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people in a failed 1970-97 effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K. when the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Ireland gained its independence in 1922.
The outlawed IRA formally renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, clearing the way for its allied Sinn Fein party to recognize the legal authority of Northern Ireland and its police.
Still, few observers expected Paisley to agree to a pact so quickly after the IRA-Sinn Fein peace moves _ or to get along so warmly with McGuinness during their year in partnership.
McGuinness _ addressing his remarks to the stooped, silver-haired Paisley across the chamber _ noted that Ulster wits had christened the two of them "the Chuckle Brothers."
"And I would like to think that we showed leadership. I think my relationship with him will undoubtedly go down in the history books," said McGuinness, whose organization once considered Paisley a prime target for assassination.
Northern Ireland Assembly, http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/