Extraordinary scenes continued in the peace process 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 Mr 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 of 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 new 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 of friendship.
“The future for this island has never been brighter. I believe that this is a future of peace, reconciliation and rising prosperity for all.”
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 MP said. “That is another important moment in history. It is very, very welcome.
“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 advantage.
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.”