Stormont back as bitter foes sink differences

Devolved government returned to Northern Ireland with pomp and ceremony on Tuesday, as the province’s political leaders and bitter foes put aside their differences and took their seats in Stormont’s power-sharing assembly.

Power was officially restored at midnight on Tuesday when a parliamentary order brought to an end five years of direct rule from London – and simultaneously cemented one part, at least, of Tony Blair’s political legacy.

An historic ceremony lasting nearly two hours was witnessed by Mr Blair, Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s taoiseach, and a host of US and other foreign dignatories. The leaders of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, the main Catholic and Protestant parties, quoted from the Bible and the poet Seamus Heaney as they pledged to work together.

For Mr Blair, the moment marked the beginning of the end of his premiership – a final crescendo before he announces his resignation from office. Expected on Thursday, the statement will set in motion a seven-week process for transferring power to his successor, almost certain to be Gordon Brown.

But, while there was plenty of banter, there was also a distinctly formal tone to the day’s events, and little public euphoria. It felt like a meticulously planned wedding, replete with schmaltzy music, carefully planned jokes and an undercurrent of family tension.

The guests were in a subdued mood and Ian Paisley, the 81-year old DUP leader and Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin president, did not shake hands.

The assembly's 108 members appointed Mr Paisley first minister, and Mr McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator and a former commander of the provisional IRA, deputy first minister.

As predicted, these two old foes kept their distance. At one point, squashed uneasily onto a sofa between Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness, Mr Blair wore a rictus grin as the DUP leader joked with Peter Hain, Northern Ireland secretary.

Mr McGuinness, from the other end of the sofa, ribbed Mr Ahern, suggesting that Republicans and Unionists could offer him some political stability as he sought re-election in Ireland.

In an address to assembly members, deploying the language of the pulpit for which he is famed, Mr Paisley was unable to resist a dig at the legacy-seeking Mr Blair. He suggested that the Northern Irish could have settled their differences “a lot earlier” and without the interference of “many very well placed people from outside”.

Glaring down at the invited throng, which included John Reid, the home secretary and former Northern Ireland secretary, he recalled his “wrongful” arrest at the time of the Good Friday agreement in 1998.

Mr Reid, who said at the weekend he too would be quitting when Mr Blair went, appeared too caught up in the moment to notice, swaying to the strains of Brian Kennedy’s “You Raise Me Up”.

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