BELFAST - Bitter enemies from Northern Ireland's bloody past joined forces yesterday atop a new Northern Ireland government, a once-unimaginable achievement that both sides pledged would consign decades of death and destruction to history.

The bombastic Protestant evangelist Ian Paisley, long known as "Dr. No" for his refusal to compromise with the Roman Catholic minority, formed an administration with Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a veteran commander in the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which long dreamed of wiping Northern Ireland from the map.

Their long-polarized parties will jointly run a 12-member administration that took control of the territory's government departments from Britain. Their new shared agenda: improve hospitals, schools, roads and other services and formally cooperate with the neighboring Republic of Ireland.

Power-sharing was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord of 1998, a pact rejected by Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party at the time because it included Sinn Fein.

Britain and Ireland toiled to bring the factions together after 2003, when voters made them the dominant parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the foundation stone for cooperation.

Paisley's conversion to compromise became possible because the IRA finally convinced him it would no longer try to oust Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom by force. The IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, has not been implicated in significant violence since, and this year agreed with its Sinn Fein allies to accept the authority of the Northern Ireland police.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who made brokering peace a top priority since taking power in 1997, paid particular tribute to Paisley - noting his stubborn stand had forced the Sinn Fein-IRA movement to go farther than many thought possible.

Paisley's Democratic Unionists hold five Cabinet posts and Sinn Fein four, while the moderate Protestants of the Ulster Unionists got two and the moderate Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party one. Positions were allocated on the basis of each party's strength in the Assembly.

Even though all of Northern Ireland knew for weeks this day was coming, it still stunned observers to see Paisley, 81, and McGuinness, 56, smiling beside each other alongside Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Paisley shared the amazement.

"If you had told me some time ago that I would be standing here to take this office, I would have been totally unbelieving," Paisley told a crowd of jubilant, even giddy politicians and other dignitaries, including U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., packed into the lobby of Stormont Parliamentary Building.

Paisley, who leads his own fire-and-brimstone church and a political party, mined the wisdom of the Old Testament's King Solomon, who held that societies inevitably face a time of war and of peace, of hate and of healing.

"From the depths of my heart, I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule," Paisley said.

"How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in this province. Today we have begun the work of planting, and we will all look for the great and blessed harvest."

McGuinness, renowned as an organizer but not for oratorical flair, said the road ahead for Northern Ireland will bring "many twists and turns. It is, however, a road which we have chosen."

Back in the 1960s headwaters of the sectarian conflict, Northern Ireland was governed exclusively by Protestants - and Catholics were demanding equal rights in housing, jobs and the vote. Extremists on both sides opted for violence.

Paisley, dismissed in those days by most Protestant politicians as a lunatic bigot, led Protestant mobs against Catholic marchers, while his hate-filled speeches fanned support for outlawed Protestant paramilitary groups.

He spent time in prison for organizing illegal protests, but rebounded to build a Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, that campaigned on a promise to "smash Sinn Fein." He was known for thundering "Not an inch!", "No surrender!" and "Never!" when urged to compromise.

McGuinness, a high school dropout and apprentice butcher, joined a revived IRA that developed new tactics, particularly car bombs, to ravage Northern Ireland and reduce the territory to near-anarchy in the early 1970s, the bloodiest years.

He spent three years in prison for IRA membership.

Throughout the conflict, about 3,700 people died and tens of thousands were maimed in Northern Ireland, England and the Irish Republic before Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, McGuinness and other senior IRA figures persuaded the underground organization to cease fire in 1997. *