NORTHERN IRELAND'S NEW GOVERNMENT: The road to peace in Ulster remains littered with acrimony and accusations

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THE NEW epoch emerged after the traditional delay at Stormont yesterday when all of the major political parties came together in a new cabinet, a whole new political dispensation, to run Northern Ireland.

Some of them entered the new era with enthusiasm, some with trepidation, some of them screaming blue murder, or at least pointing at their unwelcome new republican colleagues in government and accusing them of having a murderous past.

But they none the less all went into it, Sinn Fein hoping it will lead towards a united Ireland, Ulster Unionists hoping to strengthen the union with Britain, the SDLP hoping for reconciliation, Ian Paisley's people torn between Protestant fundamentalism and access to the levers of power.

David Trimble, Unionist, was confirmed First Minister with Seamus Mallon, nationalist, as his deputy. Martin McGuinness, who shortly after leaving school was the most wanted republican in Londonderry, became Minister for Education. He will presumably be advising the next generation not to go down the road that he did.

His Sinn Fein colleague on the executive is to be Dublin-born Bairbre de Brun, widely regarded as one of the most able of the party's senior people. She will be Minister for Health and Social Services.

While some parties regarded health as something of a poisoned chalice given that hospital closures and other difficult choices loom ahead, Sinn Fein's choice of that department and of education means the party has placed itself very much at the heart of the new administration.

Peter Robinson, the Rev Ian Paisley's deputy, who had earlier had been lambasting the whole set-up as a plot to get Northern Ireland into a united Ireland, became Minister for Regional Development. In a brief statement aimed at covering both his flanks against charges of hypocrisy and sectarianism, Mr Robinson pledged to oppose any devious republican stratagems but also to be a fair administrator who would be unswayed by anyone's religious or political affiliations.

Within minutes, however, his Paisleyite colleagues were before the television cameras criticising the system they had just agreed to join. Democratic Unionist representatives are thus set to become semi-detached members of the new executive, combining denunciation with participation in a unique fusion of principle and pragmatism.

The rest of the 10 ministries were shared out in accordance with a mathematical formula the politicians know as "triggering d'Hondt". David Trimble chose Sir Reg Empey, Sam Foster and Michael McGimpsey as his three ministers to take charge of enterprise and trade, environment and culture and the arts. The SDLP leader, John Hume, chose Mark Durkan as Finance Minister, Brid Rodgers as Agriculture Minister and Sean Farren to take charge of higher education, training and employment. Nigel Dodds of the DUP got social development.

At one level the appointments seemed to represent a lowering of the political sights from the great constitutional issues, and the overriding question of the use of violence, to a mundane administrative level.

It has been a quarter of a century since Northern Ireland politicians wielded actual power, which means that they have spent their careers in a culture dominated by the politics of opposition. Now they are being called on to administer, and to do so via an unprecedented system loaded with checks and balances.

The 10 new ministers, together with Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon, will now be called on to be at their desks, managing a flow of paper, justifying their decisions to the Assembly.

But this is not so much a lowering of sights as entry into a new world of political barter and give and take and accommodation and the development of personal and political relationships: a world of democracy.

But democracy is not all sweetness and light, and those Unionists who oppose the Good Friday Agreement yesterday served notice that Stormont is not going to be a comfortable, clubbable place. Yesterday's exchanges showed that it is going to be a bumpy ride, with much tension and probably much unpleasantness.

The appointment of ministers took place in a businesslike atmosphere, apart from some barracking of Sinn Fein from the public gallery and an ineffectual one-man loyalist walk-out when Martin McGuinness accepted, in Irish, his nomination as Education Minister.

But earlier, the Paisley people and their allies had staged a symbolic rearguard action, attacking a move by Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to have Mr Mallon reinstated as Deputy First Minister, a post he resigned in the summer.

It took some nifty procedural footwork to get it all through, as the Unionist critics savaged it as a motion based on a falsehood, a shabby backdoor trick. But they had their say, a vote was taken and they lost it.

Paisley's people are famously in favour of majority rule, and they live in hope that they will eventually undermine Mr Trimble by siphoning support away from his party both within the Assembly and among Protestants as a whole.

That perpetual battle within Unionism is going to continue, new dispensation or not. But for the moment at least the Belfast Assembly has a new type of majority, a cross-community one. Republicans, nationalists and enough Unionists have found enough common ground to proclaim: this is it, the new majority in Northern Ireland, the new way ahead, full of uncertainty but full too of hope.