Enemies join forces to form a new government for Ulster

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The Independent Online

Ulster Unionists and Irish republicans were brought together yesterday in an unprecedented coalition government intended to pave the way for a new post-Troubles era in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Unionists and Irish republicans were brought together yesterday in an unprecedented coalition government intended to pave the way for a new post-Troubles era in Northern Ireland.

The representatives of traditions which for centuries have been at loggerheads, often grappling together in lethal confrontation, solemnly chose their representatives to serve in a new cross-community executive.

Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, once the epitome of militant republicanism and a particular Unionist hate-figure, is to take charge of Northern Ireland's schools as Minister for Education. His republican colleague Bairbre de Brun is to be Minister for Health, serving under the Unionist First Minister, David Trimble, in an remarkable transformation of Sinn Fein from the revolutionary to the administrative.

In the share-out of executive posts Mr Trimble chose the enterprise, environment and arts and culture portfolios. His party deputy, John Taylor, kept a certain distance from the exercise by declining a ministerial post.

John Hume, the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, chose finance, agriculture and higher education for his party. Seamus Mallon was reinstated as Deputy First Minister, after an unsuccessful Paisleyite protest.

Most of the fireworks at yesterday's sitting of the Ulster Assembly were generated by the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, who opposed the Mallon move as undemocratic. The party went on, however, to accept two posts in the new executive. Mr Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson, became Minister for Regional Development while Nigel Dodds took the social development portfolio.

The DUP position, outlined with some passion yesterday, is that Mr Robinson and Mr Dodds will become ministers but will not sit down with Sinn Fein. This presumably means they will not attend cabinet meetings, though Mr Robinson said he intended to represent all the people of Northern Ireland.

There was acrimony in the Stormont chamber, but there were also moments of humour and of serious politicking as traditional foes sought to shoehorn themselves into the arrangements laid down by the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Paisley protested at the fact that the two ministries concerned with education would both be in the hands of nationalists, since in addition to Mr McGuinness, the department of higher education and training will be headed by the SDLP's Sean Farren.

Condemning Mr Trimble's party, Mr Paisley declared: "They have handed over the education of your children from day one until they graduate from university to IRA-Sinn Fein and to the SDLP."

Sinn Fein's chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, rebuffed the attack, saying: "We have not set out to deliberately provoke, unlike some other parties. We have a genuine commitment to making the institutions and the Good Friday Agreement work."

Earlier within the chamber, however, Mr Paisley could be seen laughing together with two members of the SDLP during a short recess while Mr Mallon's position was clarified.

Mr Paisley and his supporters mounted a blitz of points of order on the Mallon question, but he eventually lost the vote.

Mr Mallon declared: "This motion is not about me, either as a politician or a person. It is not about any individual, it is about this Agreement and it is about my conviction that I will do everything in my power to ensure that this Agreement works."

The way was cleared for yesterday's appointments when Mr Trimble successfully steered his proposals through his party council on Saturday, winning endorsement from 58 per cent of delegates.

Mr Hume said the successful nomination of ministers represented a "huge and historic development". "This is the first time in our history that representatives of all sections of our people will be working together in government. It will transform our society and replace the politics and violence of the past," he said.

Westminster will today be asked to approve an order devolving power to the Assembly, with actual power expected to be transferred on Thursday. The IRA has promised to appoint an interlocutor who will deal with the International De-commissioning Commission.

Later this week, the British and Irish governments will instigate constitutional changes laid down in the Good Friday Agreement. The articles of the Irish Constitution which lay claim to Northern Ireland will be dropped, while the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement is to be superseded by a new British-Irish Agreement.