Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has said a breakthrough deal on power-sharing following the first-ever direct talks with DUP leader Ian Paisley means that “a new and unprecedented opportunity for progress now exists”.

Extraordinary television images of the two party leaders sitting together following the announcement of the deal on Monday have been widely hailed as heralding the dawn of a new era in the Six Counties.

Mr Adams, wearing an Easter lily in his lapel to commemorate those who died in the 1916 Easter Rising, sat just across the table from Mr Paisley.

The two parties have agreed to share power on May 8, six weeks later than originally planned by the Dublin and London governments -- but it is the first time the two parties have jointly signed up to any plan to run the Six Counties. On May 8th -- just weeks ahead of the expected election date in the 26 Counties, powers will be transferred to a Six-County executive headed by Ian Paisley as First Minister and Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

The deal should see the full implementation of the St Andrew’s Agreement, a document issued by the two governments in October and based on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The parties also agreed to make further attempts to increase the ‘peace dividend’ which will be transferred from the British Exchequer to fund the new institutions, and to begin a work programme of high-level discussions on future policy.

Although negotiations continued up to Sunday night, most of the focus on Monday shifted to the new public spirit of agreement and co-operation between the former enemies. The so-called ‘optics’ of the deal had an immense impact on the national and international media, while the statements subsequently released -- particularly that by Mr Paisley -- were genuinely historic in their tone of reconciliation.

However, there have been signs of mounting dissent within the DUP this week, while Mr Adams has warned there was still “much work to be done”.

Expressing confidence that the process would now succeed, the Sinn Féin leader thanked supporters across the world for helping the party reach this point.

“People are more hopeful now than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement,” said Mr Adams.

“Of course, there is still a long way to go and much work to be done but I believe it is right and proper that we take this time to thank all of those who helped create this opportunity. Particularly those in the international community who backed the search for peace and supported the centrality of inclusive dialogue and negotiations, when such concepts were not popular.

“I want to especially thank the Irish diaspora around the world. Those Irish or of Irish descent who make up Irish America, or live in Canada and Australia and elsewhere who have played a pivotal role in the development of the peace process.

“There are many such far sighted people from all walks of life. From the corporate world, NGOs, the Labour movement, the Arts and literary world as well as political representatives. Too many to name. But I think of leaders like Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London who was vilified in the British and Irish media for daring to speak away back in the early 1980s to Sinn Féin and Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn and many others in London.

“And then there are a whole host of others like President Clinton; Senator George Mitchell; former South African President Nelson Mandela, the current South African President Thabo Mbeki; President Fidel Castro; Cyril Ramaphosa; Martti Ahtisaari; Senators Kennedy and Dodds, and Congress members like Jim Walsh and Richie Neal and Peter King. And many, many more.

“I also want to thank President Bush who has remained focused and committed to the peace process throughout his time in office and who has appointed a succession of special envoys who have played a key role in the peace process.

“I want to see a very public and heartfelt go raibh maith agaibh - thank you - to all of them. We are where we are because of their trust and confidence in us. They never gave up - even when things looked bad.

“Our responsibility to the people of Ireland and to all of our international friends and comrades is to commit ourselves to never give up, and to keep pushing this process forward to the day when we achieve Irish freedom and a free united Ireland.”

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© 2007 Irish Republican News