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Once Bitter Rivals in N. Ireland Unite to Form a Cabinet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sworn enemies and new political allies joined Monday to form Northern Ireland’s first government of Protestants and Roman Catholics in more than a quarter of a century.

The extraordinary 12-member Cabinet is scheduled to assume powers from London on Thursday. It includes Martin McGuinness, a former commander of the Irish Republican Army who now represents its political wing, Sinn Fein, as well as a pro-British unionist who was the target of IRA gunmen just three years ago.

The Cabinet was named in the ornate chamber of the Stormont Parliament in a scene of hope and enduring bitterness that indicated how much work lies ahead if the province is to put 30 years of sectarian bloodshed behind it.

Delayed for more than a year by distrust and political deadlock, the very naming of a Cabinet was a milestone that at times had seemed beyond the reach of politicians working for peace in Northern Ireland.

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“Now we have the possibility, the potential of a new beginning,” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said after his party had received its two seats in the new executive.

This is the first time in the history of the bloodied province that Irish republicans--Catholic men and women, many of whom supported the use of violence to achieve their goal of a united Ireland--have agreed to sit in a Belfast government under British sovereignty. It also is the first time they have been allowed to share power with the long-dominant Protestant majority.

Many Protestants were stunned by the reality of this when Adams stood up and announced that McGuinness would take the Education Ministry. The former IRA commander will oversee public schools, the vast majority of which are in effect segregated between Catholics and Protestants.

Some members of the Northern Ireland Assembly gasped, and spectators began to hiss from the gallery. Three unionist assemblymen who oppose the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that led to the shared government stormed out.

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“I can’t sit through this obscenity!” shouted Cedric Wilson of the small Northern Ireland Unionist Party.

Asked by presiding officer Lord Alderdice whether he would accept the nomination, McGuinness responded in Irish.

“Ta,” he said. “Yes.”

Cabinet posts were allocated to political parties according to the number of seats they hold in the elected, 108-member assembly. Party leaders selected their ministries by rotation, much like teams in a sports draft.

Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate, will serve as first minister because he leads the largest political party. The Ulster Unionists took three other ministries--enterprise and trade, environment and culture.

After a three-hour filibuster led by Protestant opponents of the peace accord, the assembly voted to reinstate Catholic moderate Seamus Mallon as Trimble’s deputy. Mallon was elected to serve alongside Trimble as one of two acting ministers last year but resigned four months ago in frustration over the lack of progress in the peace process.

Mallon’s Social Democratic and Labor Party also took three other posts: finance, higher education and agriculture. Along with Sinn Fein’s two posts--education and health--Catholics have half the seats in the Cabinet.

The Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, holds the remaining two seats, even though the party is adamantly opposed to the peace process that created the government.

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In accepting his post as minister for regional development, DUP member Peter Robinson raged that Sinn Fein is not a “suitable partner” in government and said he will employ “every ounce of influence” to frustrate the rival party’s intention to use the democratic process to seek a united Ireland.

Robinson’s colleague in the DUP, Nigel Dodds, seconded the sentiment in accepting his portfolio as minister of social development. Dodds came under fire from IRA gunmen in 1996 as he went to visit his son in a Belfast hospital.

The peace agreement says that Northern Ireland will remain a part of Britain so long as a majority of its citizens want that. Sinn Fein hopes to convince the majority to opt for a united Ireland one day.

While decision-making on such issues as health, education and trade will be turned over to the local government, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland will retain control of security matters, the police and the criminal justice system.

Defense, taxation and international relations also will remain under the authority of the British government, as they do in Scotland and Wales despite recently established parliaments. The Northern Ireland government will have no power of taxation.

Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein are still at loggerheads over the issue of IRA disarmament, which, like the formation of a provincial government, is required by the Good Friday accord they both signed.

Last week, the Ulster Unionists dropped their long-standing refusal to form a government before the IRA begins to give up its guns. But the party council allowed Trimble to go forward only after he promised members a chance to vote again in February and presented them with a predated letter of resignation from his government post in the event the IRA has not started to disarm.

The maneuver infuriated Sinn Fein leaders, who said the demand was an ultimatum of the sort that has plagued the accord since the beginning, and one that will make it even more difficult to convince the IRA to give up its guns.

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There is much concern that Sinn Fein will not be able to convince the IRA to begin disarming and that the government could collapse in February.

A previous attempt at power-sharing between unionists and Catholics in the Social Democratic and Labor Party collapsed after just a few months in 1974.

Skeptics on both sides of the political and religious divide suspect one another of using the peace process as a ploy to achieve their goals. Some in the republican camp fear that unionists want to take their guns and get them out of government, while some unionists fear that the republicans want to govern while keeping a private army on hand to enforce their will.

The hope is that the more deeply involved both sides get in government and governing together, the more committed they will be to making it work. Also, an annual salary of about $74,000, a car, staffed office and security personnel may help entice ministers to stay in the Cabinet.

Now that the government has been named, the British Parliament is supposed to pass a bill today authorizing the transfer of powers. The queen is supposed to sign it Wednesday, with powers being shifted Thursday. On that day, the IRA is to name its representative to an international disarmament commission, and the Irish government is to formally amend its constitution, relinquishing its historic claim to Northern Ireland.


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