N. Ireland Assembly opens amiably Protestant, Catholic leaders make show of common ground

July 02, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

BELFAST -- Democracy broke out in Northern Ireland yesterday, and at the end of the day the new Assembly was still in business and there was no blood on the floor.

Among those who took part in the inaugural sitting of the 108-seat Assembly were eight former paramilitary prisoners, three men who were shot in assassination attempts, one who survived a bomb that killed 11 of his neighbors, and several others who escaped various attempts to kill them.

It was striking to watch David Trimble and Seamus Mallon shake hands after they were elected leader and deputy leader. The last time they stood shoulder to shoulder was in a village called Poyntzpass where two best friends -- one a Roman Catholic, the other a Protestant -- had been shot dead in a bar, in the dark days of last winter when a political settlement seemed hopeless.

Trimble, leader of the Unionist Party, which represents most Protestants, and Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which represents most Catholics, together comforted the dead men's families. It was a spontaneous show of solidarity and humanity.

Yesterday, they again occupied the common ground that has proved so elusive these past 30 years. Trimble and Mallon stood in the same room where the Good Friday accord was reached and vowed to represent the interests of all people. Later, they slapped each other's backs and joked over who would buy the other a drink.

Mallon became the Assembly's deputy leader because John Hume, the head of his party and the chief architect of the Good Friday accord, removed himself from the running. Mallon warmly praised Trimble for leading the majority of Protestant unionists "with courage, with dignity, with integrity."

Trimble, standing just 20 feet away from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, once leaders of the Irish Republican Army and now of its political wing Sinn Fein, said, "We have always acknowledged the possibility that people can change."

Even McGuinness applauded Trimble. But Adams acknowledged reality by saying that his party would abstain from voting for Trimble as first minister because "it could be used to beat him up."

The Rev. Ian Paisley and his dissident unionist allies wasted little time in making life uncomfortable for Trimble, whom they consider a traitor, and for Sinn Fein's 18 Assembly members, whom they derided as murderers. They coughed and snickered when Sinn Fein members made introductory remarks in Gaelic.

But most observers were surprised by the relatively restrained behavior of Paisley, who has heckled worse in British Parliament.

"They were remarkably tame," said Monica McWilliams, leader of the Women's Coalition, a centrist party. "I expected a lot worse from them. I think they realize now, this is going to work."

As debate droned on about the potential for violence Sunday in Portadown, where a Protestant group is barred from marching through a Catholic neighborhood, everyone knew that long days lay ahead.

For the moment, as Northern Ireland adapts cautiously to a new political era after a quarter-century of modern conflict, the Assembly will remain a shadow organization and Trimble only a first minister-designate. Real power will only be transferred to the body next year, and then only if it manages to establish internal structures and several cross-border bodies with the Irish Republic.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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