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World - Europe

Trimble, Mallon elected leaders of N. Irish Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly meets for the first time  
July 1, 1998
Web posted at: 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- The newly created Northern Ireland Assembly elected a Protestant leader and Catholic deputy Wednesday in a major step down the province's long road to peace.

Ulster Unionist Party head David Trimble became first minister, and Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labor Party was named deputy first minister.

The two leaders were elected on a joint vote of 61-27. Seventeen of the Assembly's 108 members abstained -- all members of the Sinn Fein party -- and three were absent.

The election was the first major decision made by the Assembly, which was set up as part of a peace accord that was approved by voters both north and south of the Irish border in separate referenda in May.

Trimble warns of difficulties ahead for the newly created assembly  
281 K / 25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

Together, Trimble and Mallon will head a 12-member executive body with full legislative and executive authority in the fields of education, agriculture, economic development, environment, finance, health and social security.

One of the first tasks facing the new leaders will be to try to avert sectarian clashes on Sunday when the Protestant Orange Order plans to march through the Catholic area of Portadown, the scene of serious violence in the past.

The election came after party representatives from both sides of the religious and political divide laid out their views and visions for the new Assembly in an often heated and emotional presentation that echoed 30 years of sectarian conflict.

But Trimble, speaking shortly before his election, tried to smooth the waves and called for tolerance.

"We're now coming out of the morass of the past 30 years," Trimble said, referring to "terrorism and political violence that this community has suffered."

Adams and McGuinness
Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams (L) and Martin McGuinness  

"We're not yet out of this morass," Trimble underlined, but he added that the people now had a voice within the format of a democratically elected assembly to make themselves heard.

"There will be no magic wand to solve the current problems," Trimble said, adding that much work lies ahead for the new institution.

"There are some people in this room that have done terrible things," Trimble said in apparent reference to former paramilitary members now sitting in the Assembly.

The body includes convicted Irish Republican Army bomber Gerry Kelly and two former Protestant guerrillas who fought the IRA for years before turning to politics -- David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson.

Trimble said it is important to recognize that people can change, and that it will be crucial for the future of the Assembly, as well as Northern Ireland's communities, that there is now a commitment by all parties to pursue the "democratic process" of government.

During the debate, Mallon was challenged to outline his views on the contentious issue of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. Mallon responded by saying that he clearly favored getting illegal arms out of the hands of sectarian groups.

Protestant hard-liners have accused Sinn Fein of not wanting its military wing, the IRA, to hand over its weapons -- an allegation firmly rejected by Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein member Martin McGuinness said during the debate that his party is now a democratically elected representative group in the Assembly, despite what he said were attempts by Protestant hard-liners to keep Sinn Fein out of the body.

McGuinness challenged his opponents to accept Sinn Fein's presence and work with the party in a democratic way.

Earlier in the debate, the fiercely pro-London Rev. Ian Paisley, the leader of a 28-strong bloc of Protestants opposed to the peace agreement, signaled his determination to make every step of decision-making a drawn-out fight by criticizing the Assembly's speaker, Lord Alderdice, for a technicality.

Alderdice adjourned the meeting briefly to allow each party's members to sign the assembly's official register, which required them to designate themselves as Nationalist (Catholic), Unionist (Protestant) or Other.

The Northern Ireland Assembly gives Northern Ireland its first measure of home-rule since 1974. Among other things, it will be charged with forging closer relations with the neighboring Irish republic.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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