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Faces of the past see the future take shape

'Hostility replaced with neighbourliness' as the new MLAs are sworn in on an historic day

Political Correspondent Chris Thornton witnesses the extraordinary events that unfolded in the Assembly chamber at Stormont yesterday

The gallery above was like a waiting room for the future, populated by the faces of the past. As the new Executive took up the Government of Northern Ireland, they were watched from above by many of the leading figures of the peace process, including the Prime Minister on his way out and the Taoiseach, whose electors may soon force him to do the same.

Seven seats away and one row back were alleged former members of the IRA Army Council, the group that came close to killing Tony Blair's two predecessors. At least there were men named as IRA leaders in a different Assembly at a different time.

Six years ago to the day, standing in the same chamber, the DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson named Brian Keenan as the IRA's assistant chief of staff, and Bobby Storey, who sat next to Mr Keenan in the VIP gallery today, as the group's director of intelligence.

Time marches on as the new First Minister said about another matter - his arrest on the night the Good Friday Agreement was reached - "That was yesterday. This is today."

Today, Mr Robinson is the Finance Minister of a new Executive that includes at its head Martin McGuinness, who six years ago he described as "the Butcher of the Bogside".

Among others present were leading lights of the peace process, including John Hume.

Above: How we reported yesterday's historic event

Nearby was Fr Alex Reid, who helped bring Mr Hume and Gerry Adams together for their groundbreaking talks.

He sat near the Rev Harold Good, reuniting the clergymen who witnessed the IRA's final act of decommissioning. Among them were other figures from the peace process like John Reid, Ted Kennedy, Peter Hain, as well as 30 members of the public who got in to witness another day of history.

Below, on the floor of the Assembly, they were - in Ian Paisley's words - replacing hostility with neighbourliness.

Before the formal business of nominating ministers, Gerry Adams offered his condolences to the DUP over the death of George Dawson, the MLA who succumbed to cancer last night. Mr Paisley nodded.

There was also good humour. Mr Paisley nominated William Hay as the new Speaker and the seconder, Jeffrey Donaldson, referred to Mr Hay as a " stout defender".

MLAs shot looks at Mr Hay's girth and began to laugh.

Mr Hay took up his post and asked that, out of respect for Mr Dawson, there should be no applause when the new ministers were sworn in.

So it proceeded in a solemn atmosphere that at times seemed to have Bertie Ahern squirming to get back on the campaign trail. There was little drama - each of the ministers was already known and had been handed their briefs, so they stood in turn and affirmed the oath of office by reading off shiny cue cards.

Throughout, there were quiet handshakes all around. In the gallery, the alleged IRA men were for the most part expressionless, but smiled when Gerry Kelly became a junior minister.

The new First Minister admitted he was surprised to find himself standing where he was. "If anyone had told me that I would be standing here today to take this office, I would have been totally unbelieving," he said. "There's been so much despising by the press," Mr Paisley added afterwards, "it was nice to see it was done with dignity."

Later, Tony Blair talked about never forgetting those who lost their lives, and acknowledged that some can never forgive.

But he said it had to be remembered that what many considered impossible had been achieved.

After four decades of conflict and years of negotiation, the formal business in the chamber took less than an hour.

At the end, there was no applause or outburst of emotion, just a quiet murmur as the figures of the past who watched it all quietly filed out of the viewing gallery. The alleged IRA leaders were among them.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph