Story Highlights• Protestant, Catholic political leaders: Power-sharing government to start May 8
• Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams hold first ever face-to-face meeting in Belfast
• Sinn Fein leader Adams said deal marked the start of "a new era of politics"
• IRA announced in 2005 it would dump weapons and halt its armed campaign
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BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Northern Ireland's major Protestant and Catholic parties have hailed a deal to form a power-sharing government as a "new era of politics" to end three decades of sectarian conflict in the British province.
Monday's breakthrough followed the first face-to-face talks between the Protestants of Ian Paisley's hardline Democratic Unionist Party and the Roman Catholics of Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein.
Paisley, 80, who had previously boycotted contact with Sinn Fein because of its links to the Irish Republican Army, met Adams at the Northern Ireland assembly building in Belfast but the pair did not shake hands, news agencies reported.
"Today we've agreed with Sinn Fein that this date will be Tuesday, May 8, 2007," Paisley, sitting next to Adams at the negotiating table, later told reporters.
Paisley said that "after a long and difficult time in our province, I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead for our province."
"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," he added.
Adams also committed his party to the deal. He said there would be challenges ahead but the deal marked the start of "a new era of politics on this island."
The historic meeting came on the day that Britain long billed as an "unbreakable" deadline for a Catholic-Protestant administration to be formed.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed the deal reached on Monday.
"This is 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.
"The people of Northern Ireland have ... said: 'We want peace and power-sharing and people working together' and the political leadership has then come in behind that and said: 'We will deliver what the people want,'" he said.
CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said the announcement of a power-sharing government marked a "huge and crucial step forward."
"It is not the final culmination -- that will come on May 8 -- but it is the beginning of the end for the decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland."
The DUP had asked for a six-week delay before it joined Sinn Fein in a new government.
The British government offered financial incentives for the DUP and Sinn Fein to meet the March 26 deadline.
The DUP officials indicated they wanted an improved financial package from Britain and needed time to see if the IRA would support law enforcement.
A Northern Ireland assembly was set up under the 1998 Good Friday agreement that ended the conflict but was suspended in 2002 amid allegations of an IRA spy ring operating in the building.
Paisley had opposed the 1998 peace deal and rejected earlier power-sharing attempts with Sinn Fein because of what he said was its links to paramilitaries.
The IRA announced in 2005 it would dump its weapons and ordered its members to halt its armed campaign to end British rule. (Full story)
The IRA, which has observed a cease-fire since 1997, did not say it would formally disband but promised to pursue its goals through political means.
Journalist Peter Taggart in Belfast contributed to this report.
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