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BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's main Protestant and Catholic parties agreed on Monday to start sharing power on May 8 after their leaders put aside decades of hostility to hold a historic first meeting.
Hard-line Protestant cleric Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), sat side-by-side with Gerry Adams, head of the mainly Catholic Sinn Fein, to announce the ground-breaking deal to govern the British province.
"Today we've agreed with Sinn Fein that this date will be Tuesday, May 8, 2007," Paisley said after the meeting at the Northern Ireland assembly's imposing building in Belfast.
"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 said.
Britain and Ireland have been pushing Northern Ireland's feuding parties for years to agree to share power, seeing it as a crucial step toward cementing peace in the province of 1.6 million people that has been riven by years of violence.
Adams said relationships between the people of Ireland had been marred by centuries of conflict and hurt but "now there is a new start, with the help of God".
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said the pictures of Paisley and Adams' meeting were "a graphic manifestation of the power of politics over bigotry, bitterness and horror".
With his popularity undermined by the Iraq war and political scandals, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been eager for a breakthrough in Northern Ireland to seal his peace-broking legacy before he steps down in a few months time.
The DUP wants to maintain Northern Ireland's links with Britain while Sinn Fein's ultimate aim is a united Ireland. Britain will retain sovereignty over the province, which has a Protestant majority.
The British government had told both sides they must start jointly running Northern Ireland's day-to-day affairs on Monday or accept indefinite direct rule from London. But Paisley's DUP said on Saturday it wanted a delay until May.
The British government eagerly accepted the compromise because it was agreed by Catholics and Protestants.
The government will rush emergency legislation through the British parliament on Tuesday to prevent the Northern Ireland assembly being closed down, Hain said.
For a power-sharing deal to stick, it had to be agreed by the two largest, most polarized parties, Hain, a former anti-apartheid activist said, pointing to parallels with the end of white minority rule in South Africa.
Blair hailed the deal as a very important day for the people of Northern Ireland: "In a sense everything we've done in the last 10 years has been a preparation for this moment," he said.
His Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern said the agreement "has the potential to transform the future of this island".
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "This was a historic meeting ... This is certainly a very positive step and one that moves the process forward. We welcome it."
Paisley has always refused to talk to Adams because of Sinn Fein's alliance with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerrilla group which was responsible for nearly half of the 3,600 killings during 30 years of sectarian conflict.
But on Monday, both men sat within a few feet of each other around a table. There was no public handshake.
Paisley is expected to become first minister in the devolved Northern Ireland administration, while Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness would be deputy first minister.
The assembly was set up under 1998's Good Friday peace agreement, which largely stemmed decades of sectarian bloodshed. It was suspended in 2002 amid allegations of an IRA spy ring operating in the building.
Paisley opposed the 1998 pact and has rejected earlier power-sharing attempts. The IRA met Paisley's central demand in 2005 when it pledged to disarm and pursue its aim of a united Ireland peacefully.
Additional reporting by Kevin Smith and Adrian Croft in Dublin and Anne Cadwallader in Belfast