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New North Ireland Cabinet Joins Political Allies, Foes

By Marjorie Miller

Sworn enemies and new political allies joined together on Monday to form Northern Ireland’s first government of Protestants and Catholics in more than a quarter-century.

The 12-member Cabinet is scheduled to assume powers from London on Thursday. It includes Martin McGuinness, a former commander of the Irish Republican Army who now represents its political wing, Sinn Fein, as well as a pro-British unionist who was the target of IRA gunmen just two years ago.

The Cabinet was named in the ornate chamber of the Stormont Parliament in a scene of hope and enduring bitterness that indicates how much work lies ahead if the province is to put 30 years of sectarian bloodshed behind it.

Delayed for more than a year by distrust and political deadlock, the very naming of a Cabinet was a milestone that at times had seemed beyond the reach of politicians working for peace in Northern Ireland.

“Now we have the possibility, the potential of a new beginning,” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said after his party had received its two seats in the new cabinet.

This is the first time in the history of the province that Irish republicans -- Catholic men and women who supported the use of violence to achieve their goal of a united Ireland -- have agreed to sit in a Belfast government under British sovereignty. It also is the first time they have been allowed to share power with the long-dominant Protestant majority.

Many Protestants were stunned by the reality of this when Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stood up and announced that McGuinness would take the Education Ministry. The former IRA commander will oversee public schools, the vast majority of which are de facto segregated between Catholics and Protestants.

Some members of the Northern Ireland Assembly gasped, and spectators began to hiss from the gallery. Three unionist assemblymen who oppose the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that led to the shared government stormed out.

“I can’t sit through this obscenity,” shouted Cedric Wilson of the small Northern Ireland Unionist Party.

Cabinet posts were allocated to political parties according to the number of seats they hold in the elected, 108-member Assembly. Party leaders selected their ministries by rotation, much like teams in a sports draft.

Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble will serve as first minister because he leads the largest political party. The Ulster Unionists took three other ministries -- environment, culture and enterprise and trade.

After a three-hour filibuster led by Protestant opponents of the peace accord, the Assembly voted to reinstate Catholic moderate Seamus Mallon as Trimble’s deputy. Mallon was elected to serve alongside Trimble as one of two acting ministers last year, but resigned four months ago in frustration over the lack of progress in the peace process.

Mallon’s Social Democratic and Labor Party also took three other posts -- finance, higher education and agriculture. Along with Sinn Fein’s two posts -- education and health -- Catholics have half the seats in the Cabinet.

The Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, holds the final two seats, even though the party is adamantly opposed to the peace process that created the government.