European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso dramatically united the incoming leaders of Northern Ireland's future Protestant-Catholic government _ two men who, before Tuesday, had never shared a platform.
Barroso on Tuesday brought Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness together for a surprisingly lighthearted, joke-filled press conference in Stormont Parliament Building where, on May 8, they are committed to forging a coalition of longtime foes.
"I really believe the atmosphere is great, the team spirit, and this is very important," said Barroso, who was flanked by the Protestant evangelist Paisley and McGuinness, a veteran IRA commander long committed to the destruction of Northern Ireland. "My personal assessment is we have now a very good team."
Paisley, who represents the British Protestant majority, and McGuinness, who represents the Irish Catholic minority, will take charge of a 12-member, four-party administration following 3 1/2 years of diplomatic deadlock. The breakthrough became possible March 26, when Paisley abandoned his decades-old refusal to work with Sinn Fein following that party's landmark decision to begin working with the Northern Ireland police force.
Paisley, 81, and McGuinness, 56, seemed at ease with each other in their first joint appearance, laughing at each others' jokes and backing each others' thanks for hefty EU funding of peace-oriented community projects in Northern Ireland since 1995.
Paisley urged his Portuguese visitor to sample Northern Ireland's fried potato bread, known as "fadge," a traditional staple of Belfast's legendarily greasy breakfasts known as "Ulster fries."
"What you don't eat, I am sure the deputy will gobble," Paisley said in reference to McGuinness and his official power-sharing rank of deputy first minister.
McGuinness shot back: "I would caution him against the fadge and the Ulster fry. It is all a big recipe for a heart attack if you are not careful."
That provoked laughs all round, and was the closest they came to any public argument.
Power-sharing was the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998. A moderate-led coalition collapsed in 2002 amid chronic arguments between Protestants and the IRA-linked Sinn Fein about the future of the outlawed IRA. Elections in November 2003 for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the legislature with the power to elect a cross-community administration, put Paisley and Sinn Fein into position.
The IRA ended those arguments in 2005 by disarming and formally renouncing violence for political purposes. The IRA had killed nearly 1,800 people and maimed thousands more during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to oust Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.
The European Union has been the major international donor to peace-promoting projects in Northern Ireland since the late 1980s. Since 1995 its special "peace and reconciliation" fund has given more than euro1 billion (US$1.3 billion) to community projects in Northern Ireland and in Republic of Ireland counties that border the British territory.
Barroso confirmed Tuesday that EU coffers would keep funding peace-oriented community projects through 2013 at a cost to EU taxpayers of euro1 billion (US$1.3 billion) more.
The EU chief traveled to Northern Ireland following an EU-U.S. summit Monday in Washington alongside U.S. President George W. Bush.