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N. Ireland Parties Agree To Share Power

Northern Ireland's major Protestant and Catholic parties announced a deal Monday to forge a power-sharing administration May 8, a long-elusive goal of

The breakthrough followed the first face-to-face negotiations in history between the Protestants of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and the Catholics of Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein. The two foes, who previously negotiated only via third parties, sat across from each other at a table in the main dining room in Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast but reportedly did not shake hands.

The historic icebreaker came on the day that Britain long billed as an "unbreakable" deadline for a Catholic-Protestant administration to be formed.

Britain appeared ready to extend that deadline to May so that Paisley — a hard-line Protestant evangelist who has refused to talk directly with Adams' Sinn Fein throughout the past decade of negotiations — could begin talks designed to forge a common platform for a coalition government.

Earlier, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said he would feel no embarrassment about dumping his deadline — if it spurred Paisley finally to open normal relations with his would-be government partners.

"This is about progress and success," Hain said. "We may be about to see today another one of those 'never going to happen' moments... and a last piece of the jigsaw put together."

"We're very hopeful that progress can be made," the Sinn Fein chairwoman, Mary Lou McDonald, said as the talks began between Paisley, 80, and Adams, 58.

Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein represent most of the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority, respectively.

The Democratic Unionists boycotted the negotiations that produced Northern Ireland's landmark Good Friday peace accord of 1998 because Britain permitted Sinn Fein to take part. The Democratic Unionists did take part in Northern Ireland's first power-sharing government of 1999-2002, but refused to attend Cabinet meetings because Sinn Fein ministers were present.

And since becoming Northern Ireland's most popular party in the 2003 assembly election, the Democratic Unionists have insisted on using Britain and other third parties to pass messages to Sinn Fein. Until now, Paisley's only known exchanges with Adams have come during assembly debates.

Power-sharing was the central goal of the Good Friday pact. The last coalition collapsed in 2002 amid chronic arguments between Protestants and Sinn Fein over the future of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which in 2005 disarmed and renounced violence.

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