After 50 turbulent years, Stormont shakes off heavy chains of history
The Northern Ireland peace process reached its journey's end as former bitter enemies joined to swear a common pledge of office
For the best part of half a century Stormont Castle in East Belfast was a symbol of everything that Northern Ireland's minority Roman Catholic population hated about the partition of Ireland: its Palladian grandeur housed the nerve centre of Unionist domination.
For the best part of their adult lives Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their comrades dreamt of tearing Stormont down.
Yesterday, instead of rolling up in tanks they came in a ministerial car, gliding past the black statue of Sir Edward Carson, the Dublin barrister and campaigner against Home Rule who founded Northern Ireland under the slogans "No Surrender!" and "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right!".
For the greater part of his turbulent career as a fundamentalist preacher-politician, Ian Paisley modelled himself on his hero Carson but remained on the outside of Stormont, in 1965 throwing snowballs beneath the statue at Sean Lemass, the Irish Prime Minister, when a rapprochement seemed possible between the two Irelands. In 1974, when the Sunningdale power-sharing executive between moderate nationalists and Unionists tried to draw the Province out of its inter-com-munal violence, Mr Paisley had to be physically ejected from the chamber by the police.
Throughout Tony Blair's ten years in office, Stormont was at the centre of his dream to become the British Prime Minister who finally solved the Irish Question. The peace process has seemed on many occasions doomed to failure but finally, after the public journey begun by John Major and Albert Reynolds with the Downing Street declaration of 1993, it reached the end-point yesterday in Stormont.
It was Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, who reminded all those gathered in the Great Hall: "On June 22, 1921, when he opened Stormont, King George V said, 'I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill.'" It has taken 86 years for that seemingly forlorn appeal to reach fulfilment. Without doubt the best evidence of journey's end was to be found in the public gallery, from where Brian Keenan, Bobbie Storey and Brian Gillen gazed down at their former comrade-in-arms Martin McGuinness as he took the oath of office as Deputy First Minister, swearing to uphold the rule of law and order.
Northern Ireland is awash with strange coincidences. It was six years ago to the day that Peter Robinson, the deputy leader of Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists, his likeliest political heir and now Finance Minister, used parliamentary privilege in the House of Commons to name Mr Keenan and Mr Gillen as members of the Provisional IRA's seven-man ruling army council. Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness were also on the list, as was Pat Doherty, who was sitting on the Sinn Fein benches yesterday. Mr Robinson named Bobbie Storey as the IRA director of intelligence on its GHQ Staff, the man who is said to have master-minded the £26.5 million cash raid on the Northern Bank and the robbery of Special Branch files from Castlereagh.
It was Mr Keenan who said in 2001: "Those who say the war is over, I don't know what they're talking about. The revolution can never be over until we have our country, until we have British imperialism where it belongs, in the dustbin." Yet here he was, sitting just seven seats away from Tony Blair, his gaunt, weathered face staring down at the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, occasionally lowering his head as if in prayer.
What was going through the mind of the man credited with organising the IRA's bombing campaign of England in the 1970s and who served 14 years for terrorism? Perhaps he just could not believe it himself.