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Assembly will be a union of extremes

THE 108 seats of the new Belfast assembly will accommodate, physically if not politically, almost every well-known politician in Northern Ireland ranging, as one commentator put it, from one extreme to the other.

Media attention at Wednesday's first sitting may centre on the unaccustomed sight of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, and Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party being brought together in the same room. There may be eye contact between them: there will certainly be no handshake.

The central and most powerful figures in the new institution, however, will be the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who are expected to become First Minister and Deputy First Minister. They will in time be joined by up to 10 ministers of a new executive.

Together the two men are expected to form a partnership symbolising the hopes of creating a fresh Northern Ireland with a new era of co-operation between Unionists and nationalists. Their parties have 52 seats between them and can together rely on the support of many more members.

Some believe the relationship will turn into one of equals rather than one based on the concept of leader and deputy. While Mr Trimble won the larger number of seats, Mr Hume won the larger number of votes, and is furthermore seen as the architect of the new agreement.

Mr Trimble's closest associates from his own party, and the most likely candidates for places on the executive, are his deputy John Taylor and party officer Reg Empey, both of whom have a business background.

One personality missing, however, will be the MP Ken Maginnis, who has opted to concentrate on Westminster.

John Taylor has been a feature of Northern Ireland politics since the 1960s, having narrowly survived a republican assassination attempt by the Official IRA, a breakaway from the Provisionals, before going on to become both a Westminster MP and an MEP.

Within Mr Hume's party his deputy Seamus Mallon, who is familiar to all from his television appearances, will be to the fore. Mark Durkan, a former party chairman regarded by many as Mr Hume's heir, will also be prominent.

A new generation of the DUP will come on-stream with the arrival in the assembly of Mr Paisley's son, Ian Paisley Jr. He will be joined by the husband and wife team of deputy leader Peter Robinson, who is MP for East Belfast, and his wife Iris. The DUP will also have the Rev William McCrea, renowned both for his fundamentalist preaching and his singing talents.

The Sinn Fein team will include senior republicans such as Mitchel McLaughlin and Pat Doherty. Among the new legislators are some who have previously been in trouble with the law, figures such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly having come to the new institution via stretches behind bars.

David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, who will be there as representatives of the Progressive Unionist party, also served part of their political apprenticeships in jail.

The Women's Coalition, which appeared from nowhere a few years ago to play an important role in political negotiations, will have two representatives.

One of these, Monica McWilliams, was recently appointed professor of women's studies at the University of Ulster. She has in the past complained of brushes with Mr Paisley's party, saying: "It's not just that it's an adversarial style: this is very sectarian, sometimes it's sexist, and it's personal insults as well."

Most will hope that the assembly, with its varied range of personalities, will function in a rather better atmosphere.