Dangerous issues pile up against Stormont's doors as troubles of begin

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The Independent Online

For the last few decades all of Northern Ireland's parties have been in opposition. Now, with the formation of a new devolved administration, the main groupings are to be pitched into government.

For the last few decades all of Northern Ireland's parties have been in opposition. Now, with the formation of a new devolved administration, the main groupings are to be pitched into government.

Politics is to have a new centrepiece and focal point when a new Stormont administration is brought into being and given power over the course of the week.

The way was cleared for this potentially momentous development on Saturday when the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, had his proposals for government approved by his party's ruling council by 480 votes to 349, an endorsement of 58 per cent.

This was not seen as a comfortable victory, one key observer describing it as "just about good enough", but it is viewed as enough of a win to proceed with forming an executive containing the four main parties.

Today the assembly must first consider the question of the reinstatement of the SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, as the new executive's Deputy First Minister. He resigned from that post in the summer in protest against the lack of movement.

A re-run of the election procedure might result in a failure of the First Minister, David Trimble, to secure the necessary support of 50 per cent of Unionists in the assembly, butPeter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, may produce a standing order to bypass this difficulty.

One question is whether such a move might be vulnerable to a legal challenge from the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, who could seek a judicial review.

The next business is expected to be a debate on a Paisley motion which is intended as a pre-emptive strike in that it seeks to exclude Sinn Fein from office. It is expected to be defeated, but the pro-Good Friday Agreement parties will watch carefully to see whether members of Mr Trimble's assembly party break ranks to support this.

While some Ulster Unionist members have opposed having Sinn Fein in government, there is speculation that some of them may feel they should now toe the party line as laid down on Saturday.

Observers will also watch to see whether the Paisleyite forces attempt to use obstructive tactics, or will be content to register their protest without seeking to disrupt assembly business. In previous Belfast assemblies they have proved to be skilled in waging procedural trench warfare.

The assembly is then due to move on to the appointment of the new executive, which is to consist of three Trimble supporters, two Paisleyites, three members of the SDLP and two representatives of Sinn Fein. The ten ministries will cover areas such as education, health, agriculture and regional development.

Formation of the executive will trigger a rush of political and constitutional activity. Tomorrow, Westminster will be asked to devolve power to the assembly, and by Thursday Northern Ireland will - for the first time in decades - be in control of at least part of its own destiny.

On the same day the Dublin government will drop Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which Unionists have for years complained amounted to a claim to the territory of Northern Ireland.

Thursday will also see the appointment by the IRA of an interlocutor or go-between with Canadian General John de Chastelain's International Commission on Decommissioning. It was the promise of this which led Mr Trimble to go into government with Sinn Fein in advance of actual decommissioning of IRA weaponry.

The fact that Unionists in the assembly are fairly evenly split means that a careful eye will always be kept on the balance of forces there.

No one is quite sure how the new executive will function, though the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein are expected to make determined efforts to work together in a businesslike manner. But the two Paisleyite representatives have already made it clear that they will not actually sit alongside Sinn Fein in meetings of the executive. This form of semi-detached membership of the executive could clearly lead to some administrative inconvenience.

The general hope of the pro-agreement parties and indeed of London and Dublin is that proximity and the shared exercise of power will in time generate a fellow-feeling even among such disparate groups.

The SDLP leader, John Hume, said yesterday: "This is a very historic time. The real solution starts once we start working together because then the real healing process starts. Trust will be built steadily."

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