Monitor: Comment in Ireland on the nomination of 10 cross-party ministers to serve in the devolved Northern Ireland government
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Wednesday 01 December 1999
The first steps on the historic road to the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement have been taken. The preliminary parliamentary procedures have been agreed to facilitate the setting up of a devolved government in Northern Ireland for the first time in a quarter of a century. But the proceedings at Stormont Castle yesterday went further than that. In a momentous development, they will enable the first government, inclusive of all of the main parties and political traditions in Northern Ireland, to be established this week. The legal wranglings about the position of Seamus Mallon as deputy First Minister-designate should not take from the history-in-the-making. Ten ministers have been nominated to form a cross-community cabinet and take responsibility for the governance of Northern Ireland. Besides the First Minister-designate, Mr Trimble, and his nationalist counterpart Mr Mallon, they include representatives of the polarities of politics over the last 30 troubled years. The implementation of the Belfast Agreement is beginning to happen.
What of the wreckers who have sworn to bring down baby, cradle and all? Yesterday they spewed out their predictable venom, taking away from the dignity that should have attached to the proceedings. But afterwards the Rev Ian Paisley was unusually subdued, as were the two DUP ministers he had nominated. Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds are in an impossible position. The tactic of running their departments but refusing to sit in cabinet will not work. Either they will be drawn into the net or they will marginalise themselves and look ridiculous. And clearly they know it. But the DUP's problems are for another day. Northern Ireland may have stumbled, instead of striding, into the future, but it took the right direction. It was a historic moment, an astonishing moment; and in retrospect it will be seen as a proud moment.
Republican ideology may not have changed, but nothing can be the same after Mr McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun were confirmed in their government offices yesterday. How is it possible for the Minister of Education, responsible for the schooling of all children, to argue the case for an illegal organisation holding on to its weapons? He has placed himself on the high moral ground, and must be held to account. Ms de Brun is head of another key department, health, so Sinn Fein can be said to be in charge of the welfare of people, from the cradle to the grave. Again, it is inconceivable that the IRA should be adding to hospitals' problems while the minister is attempting to minimise them. The executive deserves a fair wind, while it finds its bearings, but it will be the responsibility of the media - in the absence of a conventional opposition - to keep a critical eye on its performance. Great things are expected of an unprecedented system, but the shadow of decommissioning must be removed - sooner rather than later.
There will inevitably be intense discussion in the aftermath of the allocation of cabinet portfolios; but, in the first place, all the new ministers deserved to be congratulated on their appointments. They will face many challenges, but individually and collectively they have an unprecedented opportunity to make a significant contribution to public life. Although DUP members protested loudly, they still took up their entitlement to two seats in the executive. Together with the Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Sinn Fein representatives in the cabinet, they have been handed the chance to shape our future. This is an enormous responsibility, and, if each minister devotes the energy and ability they have displayed within their respective parties on behalf of the wider community, they can prove equal to the task.
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