BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – The last time Ian Paisley sought to make an impression on a Roman Catholic Church leader, the Protestant firebrand shouted at the pope: “I renounce you as the antichrist!”

Paisley, like Northern Ireland itself, seems to be mellowing with age. On Monday, the Democratic Unionist Party leader famous for his anti-Catholic inflexibility plans to shake hands and chat for the first time with Archbishop Sean Brady, leader of Ireland’s 4 million Catholics.

Their Belfast encounter is being billed as a warm-up for Paisley’s potential rapprochement with his archenemy, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein. Negotiations will start Wednesday in Scotland which could include face-to-face talks between the two for the first time.

If they can reach the deal that both say is within sight, their parties could be sharing a Cabinet table within weeks and running Northern Ireland in place of Britain.

A decade ago, when the Irish Republican Army was bombing London and Paisley was denouncing Protestants who dared hint at compromise, the idea of a Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein government seemed hopelessly unrealistic. But it could happen soon because the IRA is finally starting to convince Protestants that its long war to overthrow Northern Ireland is over.

Paisley refused to take part in the U.S.-brokered Belfast negotiations of 1997-98 that brought Sinn Fein in from the diplomatic cold and produced a Good Friday peace deal with power-sharing at its heart. He complained that the deal conceded too much to Sinn Fein and secured nothing from the IRA in return.

The peace deal proposed a delicate balance of moves: Britain would free IRA prisoners and reduce its military forces, Sinn Fein would join Protestants in a power-sharing administration, and the IRA would fully disarm by mid-2000.

Britain moved quickly on prisoners and military cuts, while the main Protestant leader of the day, David Trimble, split his party down the middle by cooperating with Sinn Fein before the IRA had budged on its arsenal.

The disarmament deadline came and went with nothing. Sinn Fein leaders argued that the disarmament section of the Good Friday deal didn’t require them to deliver anything. A power-sharing coalition led by Catholic and Protestant moderates lurched from crisis to crisis, and collapsed in 2002.

In 2003, an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly returned strong majorities for the Democratic Unionists on the British Protestant side and Sinn Fein on the Irish Catholic side – a triumph of extremes that looked like the end of power-sharing. Instead, it awakened realities on both sides that, in turn, have produced dramatic change.

The Democratic Unionists – long committed to their campaign slogan “Smash Sinn Fein” – realized their foes had grown to be too big to be marginalized. Sinn Fein, hungry for power, recognized that the days of milking IRA weapons for concessions had run out. The scene was set for a convincing IRA renunciation of violence.

Paisley and Adams came surprisingly close to a deal in late 2004, but the IRA refused Paisley’s demand for proof of IRA disarmament. Instead, last year the IRA proclaimed a formal end to its “armed struggle” and surrendered its weapons in secret.

On Wednesday, experts appointed by Britain and Ireland to analyze IRA behavior published a startling finding. The IRA had disbanded its key military units: the bomb-makers and weapons smugglers, and the recruiters and trainers of the army’s next generation.

The old Paisley would have denounced the experts as useful fools who had been tricked. The new Paisley took credit for bringing the IRA to heel.

The big remaining hurdle is whether Sinn Fein will accept the authority of Northern Ireland’s police force and, in exchange, Paisley will accept Sinn Fein as a partner.

Editor’s note: Shawn Pogatchnik has covered the Northern Ireland peace process for The Associated Press since 1993.

AP-ES-10-07-06 1519EDT

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