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North Ireland’s New Cabinet Holds Historic First Meeting

By Bill Glauber

Decades of bloodshed and division gave way to ceremony and history Thursday as Northern Ireland’s newly empowered Cabinet met for the first time.

The ministers immediately began the arduous task of creating local government and cementing peace in the British province. From reshaping society to restoring the economy -- everything but taxation, criminal justice and security -- local politicians now are in charge of a land where majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics have struggled over civil rights and national identity.

“We are actually beginning a new era,” said Northern Ireland’s deputy leader Seamus Mallon, who labeled as “momentous” the inaugural 80-minute Cabinet session that he co-chaired with First Minister David Trimble.

Yet in a society wracked by terrorism that claimed more than 3,200 lives in 30 years, old wounds remained. Two members of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party stuck to a pledge and boycotted the meeting as they refused to sit with representatives of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

“Please don’t get carried away about new dawns and new days arriving for Northern Ireland,” said DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, the regional development minister.

But Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, the province’s new education chief, said he was looking forward to working with all the Cabinet members.

“The key job of politics is to make politics work,” McGuinness said.

It was difficult to fathom the sweep of events in Belfast, Dublin and London as an island often convulsed by conflict was remade by compromise.

“The people of Northern Ireland now have the power to shape their own destiny and choose their future,” said President Clinton, speaking in Seattle.

While praising the peace, British prime minister Tony Blair acknowledged there are “extremists” who will “try to shatter this chance of peace.”