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Crash Courses and Breakthroughs in N. Ireland

As political leaders cross barriers, a new assembly opens today after weeks of practice in special classes.

Starting with today's launching meeting, members of Northern Ireland's newly elected assembly will have an opportunity to put into practice what they have been learning in class over the past eight weeks.

One of Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam's officials says the classes, held in a Belfast hotel, were needed "to achieve a transition from the period of the Troubles to a new era of political accommodation."

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Amid signs that sectarian barriers are starting to crumble in key areas of administration, the representatives have been attending crash courses in the art of democratic governance.

The province's political leaders are also having to start virtually from scratch, assigning key posts and assembling groups of advisers.

Over the weekend Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams named 12 members of his front-bench team, including Martin McGuinness, who will handle the delicate issue of decommissioning terrorist weapons.

In an unusual move last week Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, Northern Ireland's Protestant first minister, appointed as his private secretary Maura Quinn, a Catholic who speaks the Irish language.

In an equally striking departure from orthodoxy, First Deputy Minister Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who is a Catholic, named Billy Gamble, a Protestant, as his private secretary.

Following Thursday's first-ever one-on-one meeting between Mr. Trimble and Mr. Adams, the British Broadcasting Corp. announced another breakthrough: Trimble and Mr. McGuinness would appear together nationwide in a live TV debate about arms decommissioning and power-sharing in the Northern Ireland executive, soon to be formed.

Meanwhile, with the media excluded, representatives in the province's fledgling legislature have been learning such things as how to spend taxpayers' money and to improve relations with the neighboring Republic of Ireland.

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As the assembly moves into gear after its session today, the hope is that the knowledge and skills the members have picked up will help them build a stable, home-grown government for Northern Ireland.

Journalists were kept away from the teaching sessions so that those taking part could feel free to mingle and hold talks with political adversaries of different religious beliefs.

'Getting hands on the money'

Northern Ireland has been under direct rule from London since 1972. This has meant that the province's politicians have little or no experience in running a major political institution. The nearest thing to democracy has been at the local level, with councilors focusing on a narrow range of issues such as education, transportation, and drainage.

Alan Barr, the civil servant coordinating the classes, says the best-attended day was on public finance - "the one about getting your hands on the money" - when 90 of the 108 assembly members turned up.

Once the assembly gets fully under way, Mr. Barr says, members will travel to Boston to study comparable United States institutions at federal and state levels, and to the Brussels headquarters of the European Union for three-day seminars on a similar theme.

The assembly has not met since its members gathered briefly in July soon after the elections.

Since then Trimble has said his aim is to ensure that a "pluralist parliament for a pluralist people" replaces the "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people" that sat in Belfast's Stormont Castle until London imposed direct rule amid escalating violence.

Some two-fifths of Northern Ireland's population are Catholics who insist that before 1972 they were not allowed a fair share in the Stormont government.

In the next week or two there are unlikely to be any attempts at lawmaking by the assembly members. Instead, Trimble and Mr. Mallon will concentrate on trying to form an interim executive cabinet.

Adams and McGuinness have said they hope to be members of the executive, but Unionists are expected to argue that they should be denied places until republican terrorist weapons are handed over.

Under last April's peace agreement, the plan is for the executive, next spring, to assume powers currently exercised by British government ministers.

'Diminished terrorist threat'

Last week British troops ceased patrolling the streets of Belfast thanks to what the London government called "a diminished terrorist threat."

Britain also released several prisoners from both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Troops were sent to Northern Ireland 29 years ago to stem rising communal violence.

Before Saturday, troops had supported officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force, in maintaining security in Greater Belfast. Now pressure is mounting for early reform of the RUC itself.

Over the weekend Republic of Ireland Prime Minister Bertie Ahern held talks with Chris Patten, the longtime British politician who is reviewing the future of the RUC.

Before their meeting, Mr. Ahern said "major reform is necessary."

Currently the RUC has a heavy Protestant majority. Mr. Patten is expected to call for a campaign to recruit Catholics into a force that many of their faith distrust because of its perceived religious bias.

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