The DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed to form a power-sharing executive to govern Northern Ireland from May 8th.
In an historic occasion, DUP leader Ian Paisley revoked his long-standing policy of not talking to Sinn Fein to meet for the first time with republican leader Gerry Adams.
The two leaders agreed on a timetable to form a power-sharing government by May 8th. Rev Paisley said the delay is necessary for the two parties to undertake preparatory work to allow the executive to “hit the ground running”.
Devolution was restored to the Northern Ireland assembly last night after Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain signed the restoration order.
Northern Ireland party leaders had been warned the assembly would still be dissolved unless a power-sharing executive was appointed by midnight last night. However, Mr Hain admitted emergency legislation can be used to restore power if both Sinn Fein and the DUP reached an agreement.
Speaking with Mr Adams at a press conference today, Rev Paisley said: “Work must begin as quickly as possible and we have been considering a work programme to bring us to the agreed date for devolution, which we are now asking the government to legislate for May 8th.”
Today’s historic meeting represented “the potential of what can now be achieved”, Mr Adams said.
“After a long and difficult time in our province I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead,” Rev Paisley agreed, adding: “I believe we can lay the foundation for a better, peaceful and prosperous future for all the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Adams said the historic agreement had been reached thanks to Rev Paisley’s “unequivocal and welcome commitment to participate fully in the political institutions”.
Outlining the “sad history of orange and green” that has marred the province, Mr Adams spoke of the need to “build a new relationship between orange and green where every citizen can share a prosperous and just future”.
To mark the agreement, the British government will not dispatch controversial water bills to homes in the province. The chancellor Gordon Brown will also hold further talks with party leaders to agree an economic package for the devolved government.
It is expected the DUP will put forward Ian Paisley as first minister for the Northern Ireland assembly, with Sinn Fein expected to nominate Martin McGuiness as deputy first minister. Legally, both ministers will be equal and must jointly approve decisions.
The executive would be completed by three further DUP ministers, two Sinn Fein, two UUP and one SDLP.
The assembly has been suspended since 2002 after allegations emerged of an IRA spy ring at Stormont.