Starting fresh in Ulster Assembly: New regime has chance to succeed, despite deep split in Protestant majority.

July 02, 1998

AMID GREAT HOPES in Northern Ireland, its newly elected assembly convened this week to organize a provincial government and a civil society. It has a chance to succeed, but only a chance.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party eked out the largest

number of seats, making him first minister of the provincial government. But the Protestant majority was deeply divided.

The Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, atavistically opposed to compromise and religiously anti-Catholic, came in a close third. With coalition allies, he has 28 assembly votes to wreck the agreement. A measure designed to protect the Catholic minority from arbitrary rule gives filibuster power to 30 votes in the 108-member assembly. A defection of two from Mr. Trimble's party to Mr. Paisley's leadership might paralyze proceedings.

This calls for statesmanship and shrewdness from Mr. Trimble and the deputy first minister, the Catholic nationalist Seamus Mallon. The election showed that three-fourths of the people want the Good Friday agreement ending three decades of strife to succeed. That calls for alliance across sectarian lines, which has begun to surface.

Peace also depends on moderation in two bastions of extremism. One is the Protestant sectarian Orange Order, scheduled for the first of its traditional summer marches on Sunday. This event has provoked strife in recent years.

The other danger is the Irish Republican Army, which has said it won't hand in its guns. The agreement calls for a commission under the Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain to receive and destroy paramilitary weapons.

Failure to comply would jeopardize the assembly seats of related political parties, which in the IRA's case is Sinn Fein, and jeopardize the peace.

The assembly will set up joint authorities with the Irish Republic to manage certain common interests, such as tourism. This is what Mr. Trimble and Mr. Mallon must achieve, which Mr. Paisley will try to obstruct. This agreement remains the best hope in 25 years.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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