Extraordinary scenes continued this week with a public handshake at
Farmleigh House in Dublin between DUP leader Ian Paisley and the
26-County Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
"Good morning!" cried Mr Paisley to photographers as he approached
Ahern in bright sunshine at the Phoenix Park estate. "I have to shake
this man's hand! Give him a grip!"
The handshake represented the latest step in efforts to mark a visible
transition away from conflict and consolidate the peace process. But
the bonhomie and confidence displayed by Mr Paisley during the talks
marked a sharp change in tone in the DUP's public relationships
with the southern establishment and left both reporters and officials
surprised and delighted.
"As the leader of the unionist people, and with Northern Ireland's
place in the Union secured, I believe it is important to engage with
our closest neighbour from a position of mutual respect and with
assured confidence," said Mr Paisley.
The First Minister-designate in the restored Belfast executive said he
did not want to "plant a hedge between our two countries".
During the wide-ranging discussions, Mr Paisley backed a restored
North-South Ministerial Council to boost mutually beneficial
cross-Border co-operation, while stressing the importance of
'East-West' relations with Britain.
The DUP leader also received a commitment from Mr Ahern for faster and
easier extraditions between the two parts of Ireland. He also called
for Dublin to support a cut in the North's corporation tax rate.
The Dublin government has committed to invest 38 million Euros in
reopening the first stretch of the Ulster Canal, which will connect
Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. Plans to build a cross-border bridge
between Counties Louth and Down and other cross-border infrastructural
projects were also discussed.
There were also plans for a joint visit by Mr Paisley and mr Ahern to
the site of the 17th century Battle of the Boyne, where the forces of
Protestant King William of Orange were victorious over the Catholic
King James. The events of July 12th 1690 are still triumphantly
celebrated in parades every year by the Protestant Orange Order, many
of them controversially held near or through Catholic neighbourhoods.
The 26 County government has committed to spending 15 million Euros on
an interpretative centre and museum at the battlefield site in County
Meath, with the Orange Order involved in its planning.
In a further sign of North-South cooperation, Mr Paisley will join
Dublin officials on a visit to a bus factory in Ballymena, which has
won a contract to supply buses to Bus Eireann, while a shirt company in
Donegal has won an order to supply clerical clothing to Mr Paisley.
In his statement following the meeting, Mr Ahern said it was "a time
unprecedented hope for Northern Ireland".
"At this important time in our history, we must do our best to put
behind us the terrible wounds of our past and work together to build a
new relationship between our two traditions," he said. "That
relationship can only be built on a basis of open dialogue and mutual
respect. I fervently believe that we move on from here in a new spirit
"The future for this island has never been brighter. I believe that
this is a future of peace, reconciliation and rising prosperity for
The event was welcomed by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, who will be
Deputy First Minister in the power-sharing executive when it is formed
on May 8th.
"I understand this was the first public handshake," the Mid-Ulster
said. "That is another important moment in history. It is very, very
"Certainly, from the contacts I have had with Dr Paisley - the most
recent one being yesterday - I am more and more convinced that he is
willing to enter into the political institutions in the right spirit."
The following is the full text of Mr Paisley's remarks outside
Farmleigh House yesterday.
"I would like to thank the Prime Minister for his invitation to meet
with him today. Some say hedges make the best neighbours, but that is
not the case. I don't believe that we should plant a hedge between our
two countries. Of course, as the leader of the unionist people in
Northern Ireland, my aim is to maintain the constitutional position of
Northern Ireland firmly within the union of the United Kingdom. The
mutual respect that the Prime Minister has just spoken about is, I
believe, a key to cementing good and civilized relationships on this
island that we share. I am proud to be an Ulsterman, but I am also
proud of my Irish roots. My father's birth certificate was lodged here
in the courts after he was born. Like many of his generation he fought
to see, as a member of Carson's army, Ireland remain within the Union.
But that, of course, was not as history planned it, but that does not
destroy my Irish roots although I would put the Ulsterman before the
Irishman in my constitution. As the leader of the unionist people, and
with Northern Ireland's place in the Union secured, I believe it is
important to engage with our closest neighbour from a position of
mutual respect and with assured confidence. And I think we can do that
today. We can confidently state that we are making progress to ensure
that our two countries can develop and grow side-by-side in a spirit of
generous co-operation. I trust that all barriers and threats will be
removed day by day. Business opportunities are flourishing and genuine
respect for the understanding of each other's differences, and, for
that matter, similarities is now developing. Mr Ahern has come to
understand me as an Ulsterman of plain speech.
He did not ever need a dictionary to find out what I was saying. Today,
we engaged in clear and plain speech about our hopes and our
aspirations for the people that we both serve. The Prime Minister
kindly congratulated me on my election victory. He, too, has an
election soon, but I did not feel that it was my place to advise him on
maximising the number of seats from proportional representation. Fianna
Fail have their own experts on those matters. Joking aside, we both
appreciate the immense expectation of the community for progress, where
everyone can see for themselves the obvious benefits from devolution
and co-operation for practical purposes between our two jurisdictions.
I have taken the opportunity to raise with the Prime Minister a number
of key matters, including ensuring that fugitives from justice who seek
to use the Border to their advantage are quickly apprehended and
returned without protracted legal wrangles. I raised other legal issues
of interest to unionists and we discussed co-operation of an economic
nature that will be to our mutual benefit, especially corporation
taxes. We both look forward to visit the battle site at the Boyne - but
not to refight it, because that would be unfair because he would have
the home advantage and no Ulsterman ever gives his opponent an
Such a visit will help to demonstrate how far we have come when we can
celebrate and learn from the past so that the next generation more
clearly understands the future. We look forward to future meetings and
trust that old suspicions and discords may be buried under the prospect
of mutual and respectful co-operation. Thank you Mr Prime Minister for
your hospitality today and your welcome to this great city of Dublin."