On a Wing and a Prayer

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Should they release doves? That was the sort of question that made sense in Belfast last week, when local power was officially transferred from the British government in London to the new multiparty Assembly and old enemies sat down together in a carefully balanced coalition government. The moment was historic and moving, even startling in how quickly the new order for Ulster transmuted from plan to reality. But there have been so many false dawns in the search for peace, and so much hard work still to come, that the politicians did not dare to feel euphoric, nor wish to look like brash optimists. So when the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, with two Assembly members, wanted to mark the moment of devolution, they considered doves but opted for pigeons--raised by a club that includes Catholics and Protestants. A more prosaic bird perhaps, but one that symbolizes the humdrum struggle to get by.

The impossible was made real so many times last week that it came to feel almost normal. Not only did the British Parliament devolve power, but the Irish government renounced its territorial claim to the North, new bodies linking North and South were established, the Assembly got under way, and so did its new multi-party executive. Former I.R.A. Chief of Staff Martin McGuinness, now every inch the politician in dark suit and shiny shoes, became Education Minister. He failed exams at 11 and left school at 15 to become a butcher's boy, but there he was, testing the creaky leather chair in his new office. "I've had the education of a lifetime over the course of the last 30 or so years," he deadpanned. His appointment was particularly distressing to First Minister David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, but the baby-faced 49-year-old pledged to treat everyone "with respect and equality, with justice."

It would be hard for him to do otherwise. The new executive (still being boycotted by two ministers from Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party) must arbitrate among parties who disagree just as much about which hospitals to close and whether to expand joint education of Catholics and Protestants as they used to about who was to blame for the Troubles. Each minister must now consult a powerful Assembly committee chaired by someone from a different party. Gridlock is already a worry.

Decommissioning remains a greater concern. Trimble and his party promise to quit the government in February unless Canadian General John de Chastelain certifies the I.R.A. is starting to give up its guns. The I.R.A. has now appointed a representative to his international commission but has not directly promised to hand over weapons. It may make life easier for Trimble that De Chastelain gets to determine the I.R.A.'s sincerity rather than hard-liners in his own party. But the I.R.A. is likely to demand very public cuts in Britain's security presence, from army barracks to watchtowers, before it hands in more than a token amount.

Last week, McGuinness and Trimble joked and laughed when McGuinness came into the first meeting of the executive and sat mistakenly in a unionist minister's chair. Twenty-five years ago, both men fought bitterly, from opposite sides, to destroy a power-sharing government similar to the one they now run. This time, they and their colleagues are determined not to waste another generation. The long memories that fired Ulster's bloodletting have matured into peace's helpmate.