BELFAST, Northern Ireland - 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.

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, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

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 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.

Blair, who made brokering peace a top priority since rising to power in 1997, paid tribute to Paisley - noting his stubborn stand had forced the Sinn Fein-IRA movement to go further than many thought possible.

"I lost count of how many times I was told he would never accept sharing power," Blair said of Paisley. "But he told me, in the right circumstances, that he would. He said he wanted to see Northern Ireland at peace and would not flinch from doing what was necessary to get that peace - on the only terms that he thought would endure. I believed him, and he has been true to his word."

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 Labor Party one. Positions were allocated on the basis of each party's strength in the Assembly.

In the ceremony marking the united government, Paisley said: "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 dignitaries, including U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, packed into the lobby of Stormont Parliamentary Building.

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

"From the depths of my heart," Paisley said, "I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule. 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 for Northern Ireland would bring "many twists and turns. It is, however, a road which we have chosen."

Turning to Paisley, McGuinness wished his new partner "the best as we step forward toward the greatest and most exciting challenge of our lives."

Throughout the conflict, about 3,700 people died, and 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 group to cease fire in 1997.

Blair, expected to announce his retirement from office this week, said, "We need to remember what it was like - to marvel at how it was changed."

See BBC video on

how life has changed in

Northern Ireland via http://go.philly.com/belfast

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