Wednesday, April 4th 2007, 7:21 am
By: News On 6
DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ Protestant leader Ian Paisley shook hands with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in public for the first time Wednesday, marking another small step on the path to peace in Northern Ireland.
Ahern and Paisley smiled and slapped each other on the shoulder before their meeting in the Irish capital.
``I better shake hands with this man and give you a firm grip,'' Paisley boomed as he arrived.
Ahern's office confirmed that it was the first public handshake, but said there had been previous handshakes in private.
After their meeting, Paisley accepted Ahern's invitation to visit the site of the Battle of the Boyne, a decisive moment in Irish history when the forces of the Protestant King William III defeated the army of the Catholic King James II.
Protestant celebrations of the victory each July 12 have frequently been the occasion for violent clashes with Catholics.
Paisley said his visit to the battle site north of Dublin ``will demonstrate how far we have come when we can celebrate and learn from the past so the next generation more clearly understands the future.''
Paisley had long resisted any role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and did not visit Ahern's office until Sept. 30, 1999. After that meeting Paisley would not speak to reporters until he had reached the British Embassy.
``There were no pleasantries, we didn't shake hands and he understood that position,'' Paisley said then.
Last week, Paisley sat stiffly next to Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, as they announced an agreement to form a new government within six weeks. It marked the first time that Paisley had agreed to negotiate directly with Adams, whose party is allied with the Irish Republican Army.
Paisley and Adams have yet to shake hands in public.
On May 8, the Northern Ireland Assembly is to elect a 12-member administration with Paisley at its head and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness in the No. 2 post.
The conflict over Northern Ireland, a corner of the United Kingdom with 1.7 million residents, has claimed more than 3,600 lives since the 1960s.