The dramatic March 26 announcement of a deal to share power by the leaders of Northern Ireland’s major Protestant and Catholic parties — historical archenemies Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein — has been widely greeted as a promising development.

The Communist Party of Ireland, for example, welcomed the agreement as “a major step forward in building peace and reconciliation,” and said that if it is combined with “new, radical forms of representation and consultation with the people,” it could lead to other democratic and progressive socioeconomic reforms “not just in the North but throughout Ireland.”

The agreement, announced at the Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast, was reached under the pressure of a deadline set by the British and Irish governments. Had the two sides failed to reach an accord, they would have likely faced the reimposition of outside rule, the loss of their government salaries and the immediate imposition of new, controversial water charges on the North’s predominantly working-class population.

But the paramount consideration, Adams said, was to make a decisive turn away from the historic strife that has plagued the North for decades. Adams said the accord “marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island.”

“The relationships between the people of this island have been marred by centuries of discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy. In particular this has been the sad history of orange and green,” Adams said, using the local labels for the Protestant community that still largely favors retaining the link with Britain and the Catholic community that mostly favors reunification with the rest of Ireland.

Adams, 58, said Sinn Fein was committed to “building a new relationship between orange and green and all the other colors, where every citizen can share and have equality of ownership of a peaceful, prosperous and just future.”

The conflict in the North, six counties with a combined population of 1.7 million, has claimed more than 3,600 lives since the 1960s — when Adams was an up-and-coming member of the Irish republican movement from west Belfast, and Paisley the province’s most infamous opponent of the predominantly Catholic civil rights movement. The conflict’s origins go back to the British oligarchy’s colonial policy of divide and conquer.

The biggest shift in position seemed to come from Paisley, 80, who has until now adamantly refused to cooperate with Sinn Fein or meet with its leadership, Adams in particular. This was the first time the two men sat side by side.

According to the current plan, on May 8 the Northern Ireland Assembly is to elect a 12-member administration with Paisley as first minister and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness as second minister. The two are to have equal powers.

Sinn Fein came to the table with a strong mandate from the electorate. In the March 7 elections, its candidates defeated dissidents in the republican movement who objected to the party’s agreement to play a role in managing the police, an emotion-charged issue.

Such objections stemmed from the long history of collusion between the British-backed Royal Ulster Constabulary police force and loyalist forces, including death squads aligned with Paisley, in the torture, persecution and killing of members of Northern Ireland’s predominantly Catholic republican movement.

But Sinn Fein’s commitment to continuing the process of police reform and its emphasis, on an all-Ireland basis, on the issues of improving health care and education, developing the country’s infrastructure and natural resources, and the strengthening the role of trade unions won it overwhelming support from the nationalist and republican communities in the North. Those who focused mainly on the police issue were unable to muster significant support.

A 2005 commitment by the Provisional Irish Republican Army to decommission its weapons also won greater public support for Sinn Fein, which is viewed by many as the political expression of the IRA, and it upped the pressure on Paisley’s movement and other loyalists to agree to a negotiated settlement.

The March 26 announcement revived the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was based on the principle of power-sharing and equal rights. But efforts to create the devolved government and other institutions in the agreement repeatedly broke down.

The new devolved government is promising, Adams said. “We have all come a very long way in the process of peace-making and national reconciliation,” he said. “We are very conscious of the many people who have suffered. We owe it to them to build the best future possible.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.