Paisley ministers return to Stormont executive

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The Independent Online

All ten departmental ministers in Northern Ireland's cross-community administration were back at work as the political tempo quickened in the wake of the IRA's act of decommissioning.

The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists nominated two ministers to fill the final vacant seats in the executive, following David Trimble's action of sending his three men back into government.

Mr Trimble will tomorrow morning ask his Ulster Unionist Party executive to instruct all the party's Assembly members to vote for his reinstatement as First Minister next week.

The executive may say it will expel anyone who does not follow this instruction. This threat will, in particular, apply to Peter Weir, the Assembly member who has lost the party whip after refusing to back Mr Trimble at previous times.

The Government, meanwhile, sought to keep up the present momentum by arranging maximum media coverage of the demolition of watchtowers on the South Armagh border. Such symbols of demilitarisation are in direct response to the IRA decommissioning.

In Unionist circles, there is debate on whether Mr Trimble, once back in office, should focus efforts on building the stability of the Assembly and its executive, which for the last few years have been on politically shaky foundations.

While some believe this should be the priority, others say he should press home his present advantage by threatening sanctions against Sinn Fein unless further IRA movement on arms occurs before next February.

The idea that such a new area of uncertainty might be introduced would dismay most non-Unionist supporters of the peace process, since it would practically guarantee yet another potentially destabilising crisis early next year.

This course was advocated yesterday by the hardline Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who said his party's return to government should be conditional on the IRA making clear its intention to proceed to full disarmament by February.

He declared: "I'm not aware of any Unionist having met the IRA and heard these things and I haven't read these commitments in the IRA statement, so I think we do need to hear from the IRA, the UVF, the UDA, that they are going to continue the process of decommissioning towards the objective of complete disarmament. The return to government should be conditional upon a commitment to further progress."

Assuming Mr Trimble does return as First Minister, he will have a new deputy because the SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, is stepping aside in favour of the SDLP's new leader-elect, Mark Durkan. Mr Durkan, the only nominee to succeed John Hume, will take charge of the party next month.

In the meantime, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds took over ministries on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party. They replaced two other party members as part of the party policy of rotating ministers but, as before, will not attend executive meetings because of the presence of Sinn Fein.

Ulster Unionist culture minister Michael McGimpsey taunted the DUP, saying their return was "another example of the DUP piggy-backing on the back of the Ulster Unionist Party". He added: "Once again, the DUP are crawling into ministerial office. Having done nothing to bring about either devolution or decommissioning, they are now enjoying the fruits of the UUP's hard work."

In another less partisan intervention, Mr McGimpsey commended an attempt by the city of Belfast to become European Capital of Culture for the year 2008. He said: "If we can maintain the spirit of optimism the events this week have brought, we can harness that latent talent and show the world just what the people of Northern Ireland have to offer."

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