| May 13, 2007 at 02:13 pm
THE bloody field of the Boyne became a haven of peace yesterday when Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern shook hands on the site of the 17th-century battle.
Northern Ireland's new First Minister spent decades refusing to talk to the leaders of the Republic.
But a relaxed Paisley laughed and joked with the taoiseach yesterday as they toured an exhibition at the site where Protestant William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II in 1690.
For centuries, the battle was a symbol of Ulster's bloody sectarian divide.
But Paisley said a planned visitor centre at the site in County Meath could help foster a new understanding between Catholics and Protestants.
The 81-year-old Democratic Unionist leader said: "It would be a good thing for nationalists to know Orange history and for unionists to know green history."
The two leaders planted a walnut tree together at the site of the government funded museum, and Paisley presented Ahern with a musket captured by William's forces at the Boyne.
Paisley joked: "I trust you will not allow any of these weapons to be commissioned."
The gift was a thank you to Ahern for the walnut bowl, cut from a tree on the site, which he presented to Paisley and his wife Eileen to mark their wedding anniversary during the talks that paved the way for devolution.
Paisley thanked Ahern for his welcome and for the planned £10million visitors' centre. He added: "You will have an invasion from Ulster on many occasions."
Ahern said: "This is of course a special place for the Protestant, unionist and loyalist people of this island. The government was deeply conscious of this when we acquired the site back in 2000."
But he added: "Our history is complex and so was the battle on this ground. Catholics and Protestants fought on both sides."
A massive security operation protected the leaders during the visit. Afterwards, Ahern and Paisley attended a reception for guests including leaders of the Orange Order and DUP ministers in the new devolved Ulster government.
Irish foreign minister Dermot Ahern said the rapid thawing of his government's relations with Paisley had amazed many in Ireland.
He added: "You wouldn't believe the sigh of relief people have that this has finally happened. People really still don't understand it - that it has happened so easily.
"Why did it take so long? Why did it take 3700 people killed? If there had been a bit more goodwill on both sides, we might have got to a day like today much quicker and with an awful lot less pain."