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KAI RYSSDAL: Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sat down at a conference table in Belfast today. Nothing at all remarkable about it. Until you remember the troubles. The decades of violence between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics. Paisley’s a Protestant. He runs the Democratic Unionist Party — pro-British. Gerry Adams is a Catholic. He’s the head of Sinn Fein, which is closely tied to the Irish Republican Army and favors union with the Republic of Ireland. The two have agreed on a historic plan to govern together. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports economics played a major role in bringing them together.
STEPHEN BEARD: Northern Ireland’s long peace process has produced many surprises. But few as extraoridnary as this. Ian Paisley, having thundered for 40 years against the men of violence, sat down today and talked for the first time with former IRA chief Gerry Adams. And at a joint news conference afterwards he held out an olive branch.
IAN PAISLEY: We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children.
Paisley has agreed to share power with Sinn Fein in a local government for Northern Ireland. It’s scheduled to take office on March 8th. Gerry Adams hailed it an histroic breakthrough.
GERRY ADAMS: I believe the agreement reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island.
Oddly enough, one of the key factors in this momentous event was a utility bill. London had been about to send the people of Northern Ireland water bills for the first time. Locally elected representatives could stop that happening. The water bills loomed large in the province’s recent local elections, says Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain.
PETER HAIN: Now these proved hugely unpopular and became the dominant issue of the election campaign and the people said to their parties: “We don’t like these water charges. Get into power and do something about it.”
In fact, says Bob Barbour of the Centre for Competitiveness, the dominant feature of the campaign was not the ancient rivalry between the pro- and the anti-British. It was economics.
BOB BARBOUR: That’s what drove the election. It was: “Get into government. Get the economy going. Get this place sorted out. Let’s move on!”
Although Northern Ireland’s standard of living has been hugely improved by the peace process, it still lags the rest of Britain. And the province falls embarassingly short of the stellar performance of the Irish republic south of the border, says economist Mike Smith.
MIKE SMITH: Twenty-three of the Fortune 100 companies have their European bases in the Republic of Ireland. There’s not one of them in Northern Ireland.
Attracting foreign investment will be a priority for Paisley and Adams. Who knows whether this unlikely economic team will prove a winning partnership. For now, says commentator Malachey Doherty, we can only stand back and marvel at a political miracle.
MALACHEY DOHERTY: Two men who’ve been looking at each other eyeball to eyeball across a wasteland of their own making for over 40 years are agreeing to share power with each other.
In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.
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