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Northern Ireland begins 'new era'

Story Highlights

• Protestant Ian Paisley sworn in as first minister as power sharing restored
• Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness sworn in as deputy first minister
• British PM Tony Blair, Irish PM Bertie Ahern attend ceremony in Belfast
• N. Ireland's main Protestant and Catholic groups reached agreement March 26
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BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Northern Ireland's major Protestant and Catholic parties joined together Tuesday to form a power-sharing government, marking a "new era of politics" and an end to three decades of sectarian conflict in the province.

Protestant Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley was sworn in as the Northern Ireland assembly's first minister and key player Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein will take on the role of deputy first minister.

The two men bridged the sectarian divide and took oaths of office in front of a quiet assembly room with members foregoing applause out of respect for a recently deceased assembly member and colleague from Paisley's DUP, George Dawson.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern attended the swearing-in ceremony at Stormont, home to the Northern Ireland assembly, near Belfast. (Watch the long path Northern Ireland took to get to this point Video)

Paisley, 80, and McGuinness, 56, arrived within minutes of each other Tuesday morning and both set an optimistic tone.

"It is a special day because we're making a new beginning," Paisley said. "I believe we're starting on a road which will bring us back to peace and to prosperity."

Paisley's deputy, McGuinness, said he was "increasingly confident" that the new government would work, saying it was a "good day."

"The happenings here today are surely going to represent a fundamental change of approach with parties moving forward together to build a better future for the people that we represent," he said.

"To Ian Paisley, I want to wish you the best as we step forward into the greatest and most exciting challenge of our lives."

In committing his party to the deal, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said there would be challenges ahead, but added the deal marked the start of "a new era of politics on this island."

He said the new government brought with it the potential for a new beginning after many years of violence.

"I think what today proves is that dialogue and perseverance and tenacity and persistence can bring about results," Adams said. "We are going to succeed."

Blair said power sharing offered a chance for Northern Ireland to escape "those heavy chains of history" that had left it "pockmarked by conflict, hardship and hatred."

Ahern paid tribute to the British prime minister as a "true friend of peace and a true friend of Ireland," and praised Blair for "the true determination that he had, for just sticking with it, for 10 tough years."

A fresh start

"It's a day that many people thought would never come," said CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley, adding that the coming together of two politically opposite poles was like "the lion laying down with the lamb."

Decades of violence in the province have killed at least 3,600 people and injured 36,000.

Oakley said the steady normalization of life after ceasefires and the laying down of arms would be cemented by the power sharing agreement. He added that while disputes and disagreements would still happen, the peace agreement "restored a degree of normal politics."

"It is a development that makes such a difference to the lives of ordinary people here in Northern Ireland," Oakley said. "We can say this is that day that politics takes over from terrorism here in Northern Ireland," he added.

Dr. Brendan O'Duffy, a senior lecturer with Queen Mary University in London, told CNN there was still a threat of political gridlock and a lot of work to do looking forward. But goodwill between the players and the "delicate power sharing" would allow people to "clash constitutionally instead of violently," he said.

In another development last week, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the most powerful Protestant paramilitary group, said it would put its weapons "beyond reach" of further use against Catholics, bolstering the peace process, a Reuters report said. (Full story)

Blair's crowning jewel

With British Prime Minister Blair expected to depart Downing Street next month after 10 years in power, Oakley said the Northern Ireland peace deal would be the crowning jewel of a political legacy tarnished by Iraq and political scandals.

While Blair dedicated a large part of his time in office to the peace process in Northern Ireland, Oakley said the agreement had involved the efforts of many world leaders over the years including former British PM John Major and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

While the power-sharing government would attend to Northern Ireland's day-to-day affairs, Oakley said decisions on issues of policing would still be made from London.

The parties will share responsibility for the ministries with the DUP running the finance, economy, environment and culture portfolios and Sinn Fein taking on education, regional development and agriculture.

In a message from the White House, U.S. President George W. Bush applauded the people of Northern Ireland "for your desire to overcome a history of violence and division."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking on behalf of the EU presidency, said power sharing gave "hope and optimism to all those in other parts of the world working for the peaceful resolution of conflicts."

Reuters contributed to this report.


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