By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
I thought the photo of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley sitting at a joint press conference said it all about the historical significance of the occasion until I read the scripts that both men read out.
It is difficult to decide which captures best the ground-breaking nature of the event - the photo or the statements.
Taken separately they have their own distinct appeal and import. Many times photographers have tried to snap an unsuspecting Ian Paisley in proximity to Gerry Adams or indeed Martin McGuinness when they were in the vicinity of one another.
Such images have a novel appeal. But a planned, agreed and authorised photo of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley brings with it a special moment in time, frozen forever, unalterable - no matter what unfolds from here.
The photo shows Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, side by side, at 12.15pm on Monday March 26 2007 with their political leaderships.
The background tale of how both men were ushered to their seats will undoubtedly emerge. At most the record will likely show a period of some 36 to 48 hours of intensive negotiations involving the British government, Sinn Féin and DUP representatives - remarkable developments.
But of course the real story goes way beyond the hours immediately preceding the press conference.
Ian Paisley is a product of more than 400 years of British colonial, Protestant and unionist history on this island.
Gerry Adams is a product of 800 years of Britain’s occupation of this island.
They sat at the press conference table with that history bearing down on them.
Their statements show, although mindful of it, they were not burdened by its weight.
On the contrary their carefully crafted words tapped into the popular sentiment that both men knew the occasion would generate among the public.
Ian Paisley’s statement, in the circumstances, may well be the most positive of his entire political life.
He spoke about a “constructive engagement” with Sinn Féin producing a “binding resolution” to restore the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement on May 8.
He committed himself to ‘regular meetings’ now with Martin McGuinness in their roles as first and deputy first ministers designate; to a joint meeting with Sinn Féin lobbying the British Chancellor for a substantial peace dividend; to a series of meetings with all the parties to prepare the new ministers for the executive.
He said the DUP would deliver not only for the “people who voted for the DUP but for all the people...”
Of the ‘horrors and tragedies of the past’ he said they should not “become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future”.
Gerry Adams, more practiced in using the language of invitation and reconciliation, not surprisingly produced a statement which encapsulated Ireland and its people’s tragic history of conflict.
He spoke about the relationships between “the people of this island being marred by centuries of discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy”, of the “sad history of orange and green”, about the need to build a “new relationship between orange and green and all the other colours, where every citizen can share and have equality of ownership of a peaceful, prosperous and just future”.
He talked about the “beginning of a new era of politics on this island”, of the potential of parties working together to “build a new, harmonious and equitable relationship between nationalists and republicans and unionists”. It was he said a “time for generosity”.
Both men reserved a cherished place for those who suffered during the conflict and referred to the debt owed to them by politicians to fashion the “best future possible” - a phrase they borrowed from each other’s speech.
The relaxed mood of the press conference was reflected in the public commentary that ran alongside it.
People had voted for the breakthrough and they wanted to describe their feelings on a day which seemed to emerge from nowhere with incredible speed.
It was a ‘great day’ a ‘turning point on the road’ a ‘quantum leap forward’ ‘a unique link in the chain of history’, a ‘dream come true’.
For one journalist it was ‘a de Klerk-Mandela moment’.
For Ireland it was an Adams-Paisley moment. An omen of good days to come at long last.