When the man who made a career out of saying "no" and "never" starts to say "maybe" and "possibly," it must mean progress.
For more than three decades, while Northern Ireland was engulfed by sectarian conflict that left more than 3,500 people dead, Ian Paisley was the trenchant voice of militant Protestants who said "no" to the 1998 peace process and "never" to the idea of breaking bread with the Irish republican Catholics of Sinn Fein.
But now, more than eight years after the Good Friday Agreement started the province's communities on a tortuous road to reconciliation, what was once unthinkable could be just around the corner.
Barring any last-minute setbacks, leaders of the two most popular parties are to be penciled in Friday as head and deputy head of an interim government under a new plan to revive self-government in Northern Ireland. That means Rev. Paisley working alongside a man who for 30 years has been a bitter enemy: Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.
Paisley heads the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), hard-line Protestant unionists for whom British rule in Northern Ireland is an article of faith. They are diametrically opposed to Sinn Fein and its military wing, the Irish Republican Army, who want reunification with Ireland.
Getting the two working together in government would be a milestone, experts and politicians say, leaving no major factions outside the peace process. But there is also deep skepticism that it will prove durable.
"The deal could well be done and could get a government up and running, but how long would it last is another matter," says Henry Patterson, professor of politics at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital. "Will you get a government that will sustain itself in the long-term based on two world views that blame the other side for every bad thing that ever happened in Northern Ireland?"
While another politics expert, Sydney Elliott at Queen's University in Belfast, affirms that getting the DUP on board is an achievement "and getting them to share power with Sinn Fein is an even bigger deal," he, too, is skeptical.
"It's very rare than you'll have an inclusive form of power-sharing," says Dr. Elliott, pointing out that there are few examples worldwide where this form of power-sharing produces stability.
The deal, drawn up at St. Andrew's, Scotland, last month, is a deftly choreographed Belfast political quadrille arranged by the British and Irish governments to get antagonists to dance in step. A series of conditions and deadlines were imposed to persuade the parties to sign up. Friday, the parties are supposed to nominate their candidates for the interim government, which will work until January. Elections to the Stormont parliament in Belfast are slated for March, when a permanent power-sharing government will be installed, reviving self-rule after a hiatus of more than four years. The last power-sharing exercise fell apart in 2002 when a suspected IRA spy ring was unearthed at the Stormont assembly. An election victory in 2003 by the rejectionist DUP stalled progress. And suspicions about the weapons wielded by paramilitary groups, including the IRA, have persisted, even after the IRA's declaration last year that it was permanently abandoning military operations.
This time around, the mutual mistrust centers on policing. Before it can join the power-sharing fraternity, Sinn Fein is supposed to publicly endorse the province's police force, traditionally a Protestant bastion. It says it will not do so until a firm date is set for the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
The DUP is not pleased with this stand.
"In any democracy, surely a person who is going to be a minister in a democratic government should support the rule of law," says Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP member of the British parliament. "Can you imagine President Bush having in his cabinet a minister who didn't support the police and courts and rule of law in the United States?"
Then there is public apathy, even antipathy, toward the laborious process and bickering politicians. Political discourse has become more strident since the more extreme parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – became the biggest groups inside the peace process tent, notes Professor Patterson.
That's a turn off for most of Northern Ireland's 1.7 million people, who simply want normalized public life after decades of polarized political discourse. A recent poll found that a slim majority supported the St. Andrews deal, but that two-thirds were skeptical it would lead to the restoration of self-rule by a March 26 deadline. Less than half of the DUP supporters back the deal, meaning that Paisley will have a tough time bringing his party with him.
Some are concerned moreover that the power-sharing deal is divisive, not inclusive, rewarding factional politicians and solidifying the divisions between Protestants and Catholics. Political leaders will represent their narrow sectarian interest and do little to integrate the feuding communities, at great cost to the province, warns Ian Williamson of the Alliance Party, the only Northern Ireland party that works on behalf of both communities.
He points, for example, to the many towns who still maintain separate schools, leisure clubs, and other facilities for Protestant and Catholics, and estimates that this waste costs Northern Ireland £1 billion a year.
"We need more integrated schools, more mixed housing, more shared facilities and services," he says. "We would like to see genuine and stable power sharing, but the St. Andrews agreement delivers a sectarian carve-up. Power is divided as opposed to shared."