Sitting side by side for the first time in history, the leaders of Northern Ireland's major Protestant and Catholic parties announced a stunning deal Monday to forge a power-sharing administration May 8.

The breakthrough followed unprecedented face-to-face negotiations between the Protestants of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and the Catholics of Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein.

The two foes, who previously negotiated only via third parties, sat beside each other at a table in the main dining room in Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast but reportedly did not shake hands.

"After a long and difficult time in our province, I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead for our province," said Paisley, 80, whose party previously boycotted contact with Sinn Fein because of its links to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

"We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children," Paisley added.

Adams, 58, a reputed veteran IRA commander, said Monday's talks and accord "marks the beginning of a new era of politics on this island."

He said Protestants and Catholics had been in conflict in northeast Ireland for centuries. "Now there's a new start, with the help of God," he said.

Both Adams and Paisley said they and their deputies would begin immediate negotiations on forging a joint platform for government.