London (CNSNews.com) - Northern Ireland awakened Thursday to its first home rule government in a generation, and the first ever to include pro-Irish republican ministers in the provincial cabinet.
Under First Minister David Trimble, the new Belfast government of Protestant and Catholics today assumes control of the day-to-day running of the province, capping a week of momentous changes.
On Monday the cabinet was named. Tuesday, the British House of Lords overwhelmingly passed legislation ending 27 years of direct rule from London. The Queen signed the law Wednesday.
Thursday morning, British and Irish ministers signed a treaty formally canceling Dublin's constitutional claim to the province, and establishing a council of ministers from across the north-south border to cooperate in areas of mutual interest, such as trade. The Irish parliament is expected to approve the treaty later today.
The Northern Ireland Assembly and cabinet will be responsible for areas such as education, finance, health and housing. Security remains London's responsibility, and the province's police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is facing sweeping and contentious changes aimed at ridding it of symbols regarded as too British.
The establishment of a power-sharing administration and a "decommissioning" of paramilitary weapons are key aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, brokered last year by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
British and Irish leaders hailed the day as a truly historic one, holding the strongest possibility ever for peace in Ireland.
Later Thursday, the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups are due to appoint representatives who will cooperate with an international disarmament commission in the process of destroying or handing over weapons and explosives used in sectarian violence.
British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said Thursday he had no doubt the IRA would scrap its weapons, and repeated an earlier warning that its failure to do so would result in a suspension of home rule "until that fault was corrected."
The disarmament issue threatened to hold up implementation of the peace agreement, but a compromise hammered out by Mitchell and backed by Trimble broke the logjam.
The process of destroying weapons is scheduled for completion by May 2000. Trimble has assured his Ulster Unionist Party he will resign if it is not underway well before then, and the party council will meet in February to review progress.
Meanwhile Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, and newly appointed Education Minister in the Belfast government, said Wednesday the IRA may disband.
McGuinness, believed to have been an IRA area commander in the 1970s, told the BBC he hoped to see "a situation where politicians are in control [and] there are no armed groups."
More than 3,600 people have died in sectarian violence perpetrated by Catholic republican and Protestant loyalist groups over the past 30 years.