Historic enemies form extraordinary Belfast Cabinet
November 29, 1999
From staff and wire reports
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- British legislators will rush measures through parliament on Tuesday to cement a fledgling Belfast government that could serve as a cornerstone of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
In a day mixed with hope and disbelief, the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday formed a power-sharing Cabinet between Catholics, who long vowed never to accept Northern Ireland as a nation separate from the Irish Republic, and Protestants just as adamant against accepting Catholics as political equals.
"There will be difficulties over procedure," newly selected Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon told CNN. "But there's something which transcends all of those things, and that is the good of people in Northern Ireland."
The adversaries in the majority-Protestant province must try to rise above historic resentments. More than 3,600 people have died over the past 30 years in one of the world's longest-running guerrilla conflicts.
The Cabinet is due to receive powers Thursday morning from the British government. The legal formalities must first go through the House of Commons and House of Lords in London over the next two days.
In Dublin, the Irish Cabinet is officially to rescind two articles in the Irish constitution, thereby formally abandoning a territorial claim on Northern Ireland.
Triggering an exercise envisioned in the Good Friday peace accord but delayed for more than a year, the four biggest parties within Northern Ireland's legislature took turns unveiling their choices for a 12-member Cabinet on Monday.
Sinn Fein selection draws gasps, hisses
Picking first were the province's major British Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, and major Irish Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party or SDLP. They both received four posts.
Some Protestant legislators at the Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast gasped and hissed when Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams announced his first pick -- his party's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, as education minister.
McGuinness -- who rose to the top of the Irish Republican Army's command in the 1970s -- will now oversee the predominantly Protestant state schools as well as the separate Catholic system. Sinn Fein is the political ally of the IRA.
Sinn Fein's other candidate, schoolteacher Bairbre de Brun, had been considered the far more likely pick for the education post. She instead received the health ministry, arguably the toughest job in the administration, since closing hospitals is on the agenda.
Democratic Unionist pick was IRA target
Even the Democratic Unionists, the province's most uncompromising Protestant party, took their two allotted posts within a Cabinet they had hoped would never be born.
The Democratic Unionists promised to do their jobs impartially but vowed never to sit in the same Cabinet room as McGuinness, a factor certain to make the government's early days particularly problematic.
"We will never rest until we rid this country of IRA-Sinn Fein and all other brands of terrorism. They have no place in any democracy," said the Rev. Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader.
Paisley's deputy party leader, Peter Robinson, became minister for regional development, and a longtime aide, Nigel Dodds, will be minister for social development.
Dodds also expressed disgust at McGuinness' appointment.
"We now have a mastermind of murder in a position to educate our children," said Dodds, whom the IRA tried to kill three years ago while he was visiting his gravely ill son in a hospital.
Ulster Unionists take pragmatic approach
But the Ulster Unionists, who made Monday's Cabinet formation possible by dropping their longtime demand for IRA disarmament in advance, took a far more upbeat view.
"The fact is we're all in government with Sinn Fein now," said Ulster Unionist negotiator Reg Empey, who became the Cabinet's minister for enterprise, trade and investment. "We have to make the best of it, to show people in our long- suffering communities that politics can work."
Northern Ireland's only previous attempt at a joint Protestant-Catholic government, a joint Ulster Unionist-SDLP administration, collapsed after just five months in 1974 under the weight of a Protestant general strike.
At that time both Empey and David Trimble, who now holds the Cabinet's top post of first minister, were party rebels who helped to topple the Ulster Unionists' compromise-minded leaders of the day.
Correspondent Nic Robertson and Reuters contributed to this report.
Adams calls Unionist vote progress, but has reservations
The Irish News
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