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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Paisley, Adams set for first direct N.Irish talks

BELFAST (Reuters) - Two towering figures in the Northern Ireland conflict will formally meet face-to-face for the first time in 35 years of deeply acrimonious clashes on Tuesday in a bid to restore local government to the province.

The meeting between republican leader Gerry Adams and pro-British Ian Paisley is laden with symbolism given they have never formally met or spoken, but much needs to be done before the men with the key to ending political stalemate share power.

Paisley, a burly, bull-necked cleric known for his "No Surrender" slogan, will meet Adams, once hunted as a guerrilla suspect but looking more like a tall, bearded academic, at government offices in Stormont Castle in Belfast.

"We were always under no illusion that this is going to be a difficult few weeks," Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said.

"It is historic that they're meeting today but I wouldn't overestimate it either," he told Irish state broadcaster RTE.

The talks are part of plans put forward by Britain and Ireland on Friday to get Northern Ireland's mothballed locally elected assembly up and running by next year. It folded in 2002 amid charges of IRA spying and London resumed direct rule.

Both parties must say they agree to the plan by November 10 or London and Dublin will shut for good the suspended power-sharing assembly set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Bids to get parties from opposite sides to govern together have floundered repeatedly since the 1970s amid opposition from Paisley and his pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

A pledge last year by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to disarm has allowed the DUP to soften its stance toward the guerrilla group's nationalist political ally, Sinn Fein, which is led by Adams and opposes British rule in Northern Ireland.

"I pray almighty God that our little province will come to a place of peace," Paisley said on Monday. "I am sorry that perhaps I am not as excited as others, but I have been through these periods many times before."


Tuesday's meeting will be a huge leap for Paisley, 80, whose party refused to sign up to the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that established local government in Northern Ireland and helped draw a line under a 30-year conflict in which 3,600 people died.

The DUP normally studiously avoids talking to Sinn Fein, even when sharing TV studios or the Belfast assembly's canteen.

For years, Britain and Ireland refused to speak to Sinn Fein while the IRA was at war. Adams' voice was banned from British airwaves and he was barred from the British mainland.

Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major once said that the thought of negotiating with Adams "turns my stomach".

Adams did not finally emerge from the political cold until October 1997 when he held his first meeting and shook hands with the new Labour prime minister, Tony Blair.

Ahern said talks would tackle the wording of an oath to be taken by Paisley as the likely First Minister of a proposed governing executive, and his probable deputy -- Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, who has admitted having been an IRA member.

The crux of the debate is likely to be whether and when predominantly Catholic Sinn Fein, which has a long-held distrust of the province's Protestant-dominated security forces, makes a formal commitment in the oath to back the police.

"This is one of the difficult issues, the sequencing of how we can get Sinn Fein to move on policing and at the same time to get the DUP to move on real engagement," Ahern said.

Both parties will want to consult grassroots supporters before rubber-stamping any major shifts in their positions.
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