Catholic-Protestant leaders reappointed in Belfast

May 12, 2011 - 4:29 PM

DUBLIN (AP) — The Catholic and Protestant leaders of Northern Ireland's government were appointed Thursday to new four-year terms and planned to form the rest of their Cabinet next week as power-sharing — the central goal of a U.S.-brokered 1998 peace accord — passed another positive milestone.

The peacemaking coalition led by First Minister Peter Robinson, a Protestant, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a Catholic, was the first to complete a full term since 1998. Their two parties received strong backing from voters in elections last week for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"This new assembly gives us the chance of a fresh start with a renewed mandate. Let us use it to create the new Northern Ireland," Robinson told the packed 108-member chamber at Stormont Parliamentary Building in Belfast.

Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party won a record-high 38 seats. McGuinness' IRA-linked Sinn Fein party finished second with 29. The result means their two parties — bitter enemies during decades of Irish Republican Army violence, unlikely partners since 2007 — will dominate the next power-sharing government.

Only one assembly member opposed the reappointment of Robinson and McGuinness — a hard-line Protestant who broke away from the Democratic Unionists because of their breathtaking decision to work with Sinn Fein four years ago.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, the only member of 108 to oppose power-sharing, repeatedly interrupted proceedings to challenge their legality — and to denounce McGuinness' past as an IRA leader.

The outlawed group killed nearly 1,800 people during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. It renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, paving the way for stable power-sharing.

Assembly Speaker Willie Hay, a Democratic Unionist, refused Allister's appeal for a debate before the leaders' reappointment.

Allister said a debate was necessary "particularly in circumstances where one of those is a self-confessed terrorist commander."

Both men received the support of the other 107 members in an unrecorded voice vote, with Allister the only audible dissenter.

Later, during his acceptance speech, McGuinness noted that this month's election had been conducted with exceptional civility "except for the odd wee blow-up."

"You would know all about that!" Allister heckled, referring to IRA bombs.

Allister, one of Northern Ireland's most senior lawyers, was the Democratic Unionists' member of the European Parliament but left the party in 2007 when it dropped its policy of boycotting Sinn Fein.

Northern Ireland's most internationally prominent politician, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, overlooked Thursday's assembly session from the visitors gallery.

Adams quit his assembly seat this year to run successfully for a seat in the Republic of Ireland parliament in Dublin. He never held a position in any of Northern Ireland's power-sharing governments.

The assembly is expected to appoint the rest of Northern Ireland's 13-member administration Monday. The Democratic Unionists will receive four more Cabinet posts, Sinn Fein three.

The lopsided election results mean the two smaller parties — the Protestants of the Ulster Unionists and the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party — will receive only one post each. The Ulster Unionists won 16 assembly seats, the SDLP 14.

Those two parties led a 1999-2002 coalition that suffered repeated breakdowns because of arguments over the IRA's refusal to disarm. Voters on both sides of the community then switched support to harder-line alternatives, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, which surprised the world by forming a stronger partnership.

Bizarrely, the smallest of Northern Ireland's mainstream parties, Alliance, is expected to receive two Cabinet posts Monday, despite winning just eight assembly seats.

Alliance has a right to one post. But it also is expected to receive the politically sensitive Justice Department because Alliance is considered most impartial. Unlike the others, it seeks support equally from Protestants and Catholics.

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Online:

Northern Ireland Assembly, http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/