Ancient enemies to form coalition that takes Northern Ireland into unknown

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The Independent Online

The face of Northern Ireland politics is to be transformed this week by an extraordinary new government which will bring ancient enemies together in inevitably uneasy coalition.

The face of Northern Ireland politics is to be transformed this week by an extraordinary new government which will bring ancient enemies together in inevitably uneasy coalition.

A new cabinet will encompass adherents of David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists, of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, of John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and even of the Democratic Unionists' Rev Ian Paisley in a coalition without precedent in Northern Ireland's history.

Optimists hope that these dissimilar politicians can work together well enough to provide a much more amicable template for Northern Ireland politics in the new millennium.

The executive could be formed today, unless Unionist factions opposed to the deal succeed in holding up business in the Ulster Assembly. If all goes according to plan, ministers will be appointed this afternoon, with power being transferred from Westminster on Thursday.

The way was cleared on Saturday when Mr Trimble succeeded in persuading 58 per cent of his party's ruling council to support his scheme for entering government before IRA arms decommissioning takes place. The vote of 480 to 349 was viewed by supporters of the Good Friday Agreement as slightly disappointing. It was, however, greeted with private relief by some senior Unionists, who said that at one stage last week opinion in the council seemed to be balanced.

Defeat for Mr Trimble would have stopped the peace process in its tracks and put paid to all immediate thought of forming an executive.

At the weekend, Sinn Fein took exception to a number of moves made by Mr Trimble in last-minute attempts to win over Unionist doubters. He has promised to recall the council in February for a final decision on staying in government, which is calculated to pressurise the IRA into early decommissioning.

Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, said yesterday that Mr Trimble had introduced an element which had played no part whatsoever in the discussions he had had with republicans which led to the present proposals. He added that "the difficulty" about the Unionists' step was that it "was not, in my opinion, a decisive step forward. It was a jump forward to uncertainty. We need to remove that uncertainty".

However, he confirmed that on Thursday the IRA would appoint a go-between for discussions on decommissioning.

This was welcomed by Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who said Sinn Fein had worked to put in place a political strategy which could deliver IRA disarmament. He added: "Whatever you think about their past, they are people who are now committed to politics not violence. I don't think they would have asked the IRA to take part in this if they didn't know what the answer would be." Mr Mandelson went on: "We expect everyone to deliver on what they've said they will do - thoroughly, faithfully and comprehensively - and I believe that will happen. If it doesn't, then things will break down. That will spark a fresh political crisis and threaten the entire programme."

A taste of difficulties ahead came from Ian Paisley Jnr who said the Democratic Unionists would take their two cabinet seats but would not join the executive. He vowed: "We will not sit in the executive, so if you think there's problems now, as soon as the executive is appointed there'll be even more problems. This is not the road to a solution, this is a road to crisis."