First Minister Ian Paisley at the Battle of the Boyne site said on Wednesday that people should together share “this island home” of Ireland and be an example to the world.
Mr Paisley, who is resigning his post this month, was speaking at the opening of a visitors’ centre in County Meath at the site of a major 17th century battle. The conflict on July 12th 1690 saw thousands lose their lives as the forces of the Protestant King William of Orange triumphed over those of the Catholic King James.
The event is central to Orangeism and the exclusively Protestant Orange Order, which celebrates the victory every year in parades. The marches are controversial, however, as they are considered to be provocative and sectarian by residents of nationalists living along the parade routes.
Mr Paisley said they were celebrating something that goes “down into the core of our hearts”.
He was applauded by the assembled dignitaries when he said: “Somewhere in the nationalist heart and somewhere in the unionist heart there is the same thing -- and that is a love for this island that we jointly hold together.
“We want the best for the people of every part of this island and we want the liberty for us all. Today we can look and see that times have changed.
“I don’t want to hear about murders. I don’t want to hear about sectarian violence. I want to hear about people getting good jobs, building good homes, getting their children well educated and living in peace.
“I believe as never before we have that opportunity to have that peace. Let us all resolve that peace reigns in both parts of our island home and together we can share this island home.”
Mr Paisley said there could be no turning back to violent dispute on the island of Ireland.
“To the bad old days -- there can be no turning back,” the North Antrim MP said.
“The killing times must be ended forever and no tolerance must be given to any who advocate their return.
“A strong dedication to peace and an intolerance of murder must drive us forward.
“This must be the end of all atrocities and the building of the way to peace.”
It was one of Bertie Ahern’s last acts as 26-County Taoiseach. He said that people from the North should not be afraid to travel to the 26 Counties.
“For far too long many people from Northern Ireland were afraid to travel to the south,” he said.
“I’m glad to say those days are over and I look forward to an increasing interaction between all of the people of this island.”
Mr Ahern paid tribute in his address to Mr Paisley’s contribution to the peace process.
“I would like to commend you for the leadership you showed in helping bring about the famous day in May last year when the democratic institutions were restored,” he said.
“I would like to thank you for helping to lay the foundations for a peaceful and prosperous future in Northern Ireland.
“And above all I would like to thank you for your courtesy to me and for your friendship.”
The attendance included senior members of the Orange Order including former grandmaster Martin Smyth.
Former and sitting Assembly members as well as Irish government ministers and TDs were also among the guests.
Former SDLP leader John Hume said it was a very positive day and the fact that Mr Ahern and Mr Paisley were meeting together to speak to such a large audience was “evidence of a new beginning”.
Sinn Féin TD Arthur Morgan said it was a very significant sign that unionists and nationalists there together at the Boyne celebrating the opening of a historic tourist destination.
“The Boyne Visitor Centre with its historical significance should have the capacity to attract many tourists which will have a positive effect on the local economy of the surrounding towns.”