Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland's firebrand Protestant leader, on Monday rejected a proposal by Sinn Fein, his archenemy, that he should lead a power-sharing executive body to revive the province's stalled peace effort.
"Madam, certainly not," Paisley said when the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Eileen Bell, asked whether he would accept the position of first minister, with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as his deputy. For decades, Paisley has built his reputation as Sinn Fein's most intractable foe.
His rejection, widely expected, showed the depth of the personal and political antipathy toward Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, which could torpedo the attempt to restore a shared-power self-government for Northern Ireland.
If Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, the province's largest, and Sinn Fein, the largest Roman Catholic party, cannot agree to cooperate by November, Britain, supported by Ireland, would continue running Northern Ireland directly.
The province's warring Roman Catholics and Protestants resolved to share power in 1998 but Britain suspended the experiment in October 2002 as mistrust between the sides deepened.
A week ago the Northern Ireland Assembly, the local parliament, met for the first time since then.
By proposing the 80-year-old Paisley, Sinn Fein sought to depict itself as cooperative and to highlight Paisley's intransigence.
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, said: "What you saw today was an effort by us to get what everyone wants, that is, the formation of an executive. We will return to this with all speed."
Paisley's party seeks to continue the union with Britain. He has never accepted the 1998 agreement, which brought the assembly and a power-sharing executive into being.
"Understandably there is a lot of skepticism about whether Ian Paisley will ever lead his Democratic Unionist Party into the executive with the rest of us," Adams said on Monday at a televised news conference in the assembly building.
But Paisley insisted that Sinn Fein had not done enough to distance itself from violence, despite IRA pledges to use peaceful tactics in its quest for a united Ireland.
"Are we going to have in the government of Northern Ireland those who are terrorists, those that condone and even plan murders, who rob banks, who carry on criminal activities and who will not support the police," he asked.