By Anne Cadwallader
STORMONT — The people of Northern Ireland will be governing themselves from midnight Thursday with a 12-person power-sharing executive, including unionists and republicans, holding the reins of power.
With the exception of security and defense, most areas of government which affect people’s daily lives will be in the hands of locally elected politicians. Except for a brief period during the failed power-sharing experiment of 1974, power in Northern Ireland has been in the hands of British government ministers since Stormont was suspended in 1972.
At a historic meeting of the Northern Ireland assembly on Monday, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon was reinstated as deputy first minister, to work again in parallel with the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, who remains first minister.
A packed public gallery and dozens of journalists watched as the 108 members of the assembly nominated ministers to the new executive. As the two Sinn Féin ministers were appointed, there was sustained hissing and shouts of "shame."
There are now three new SDLP ministers, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren and Brid Rodgers; three UUP ministers, Sir Reg Empey, Michael McGimpsey and Sam Foster; two DUP ministers, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, and two Sinn Féin ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún.
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The appointment of McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s main negotiator and former chief of staff of the IRA, caused a flurry of criticism from the Unionist community.
Foster was a surprise nomination. He was instrumental in persuading County Fermanagh delegates to Saturday’s Ulster Unionist Council to back Trimble’s decision to support the deal on decommissioning and devolution worked out during Senator George Mitchell’s 11-week review.
The nominations mean that nationalist ministers will be governing all aspects of education, from nursery schools, through primary and secondary to university education and vocational training.
In addition, the All-Ireland ministerial council is on the brink of formation, along with the six areas of cross-border co-operation and six so-called "implementation bodies" to link north and south across the border.
Decommissioning still an issue
There are important provisos, however, on the way the new government will work. The UUP has stipulated that actual IRA decommissioning must take place by February. Few doubt there will be tensions then.
On Tuesday, a senior IRA source said the UUP deadline was a clear departure from the Mitchell Review. The IRA will take its own counsel on the implications of this development, the source said.
The three DUP ministers also pledged to work without speaking or cooperating in any way with Sinn Féin and have promised to be "rottweilers snapping at Sinn Fein’s heels."
The nominations took place on Monday evening after a bruising debate on whether Mallon should be reinstated, despite his resignation from the post on July 15 in protest at the then UUP refusal to nominate ministers.
By a political sleight of hand, the assembly’s standing orders were amended to interpret Mallon’s resignation as only an offer, thus paving the way for his reinstatement without the need for a full re-election for his job and that of the first minister.
Hardliners opposed to the Good Friday peace agreement objected strongly to the mechanism allowing this, which they described as "dictatorial." In the end, however, the vote went 71 in favor and 28 against Mallon.
The 108 members of the assembly then began nominating the power-sharing executive. Some commentators noted that the UUP appeared to be nominating their members to ministries to keep Sinn Féin away from certain areas, like language policy, rather than choosing portfolios that were more suited to their nominees.