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Friday, December 18, 1998 Published at 23:27 GMT

Ulster leaders reach landmark deal

The deal was thrashed out in 18 hours of talks at Stormont

A breakthrough deal over the key structures for the new Northern Irish Assembly has given a pre-Christmas boost to the province's peace process.

Early on Friday, unionists and nationalists finally agreed on the number of government departments and cross-border implementation bodies - opening the door to the new Assembly taking control of the bulk of Northern Ireland affairs.

The agreement, thrashed out in a marathon 18-hour session at Stormont, came just hours before the Loyalist Volunteer Force handed over a cache of weapons in the first steps towards decommissioning of paramilitary arms.

[ image: Mowlam:
Mowlam: "An important breakthrough"
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair broke away from the Gulf crisis to talk by telephone to the political parties, giving them a final push towards an agreement. He said later the deal was "a significant breakthrough, and I pay tribute to the work of everyone concerned."

His words were echoed by Irish Premier Bertie Ahern who said it was "a highly significant and encouraging step forward".

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam hailed the "important breakthrough" saying it added considerable momentum to the process of implementing the Belfast agreement.

The political parties agreed there should be 10 government departments and six cross-border implementation bodies to act on mutual matters of interest with Dublin.

This means there will be ten ministers, five unionist and five nationalist and republican, joining First Minister David Trimble and his SDLP deputy Seamus Mallon around the cabinet table.

Sinn Fein will have two ministries, the Democratic Unionists two and the UUP and SDLP three each.

Under the deal the 10 government departments agreed are:

  • agriculture and rural development
  • enterprise, trade and investment (to include tourism)
  • health, social care and public safety
  • finance and personnel
  • education
  • advanced education, training and employment
  • the environment
  • regional development
  • social development
  • culture, arts and leisure

The cross-border implementation bodies will be: Inland waterways, food safety, trade and business development, EU programmes, Language (Irish and Ulster Scots) and Aquaculture.

The Ulster Unionists gave way on the number of ministerial departments - they had said 10 was too costly - and the SDLP gave in on their demand for there to be at least eight cross-border bodies.

[ image: Trimble: No shadow executive before legislation]
Trimble: No shadow executive before legislation
Mr Trimble described the political agreement as "a major step forward" and added: "This clears the way for the transfer of powers from London to the Assembly."

SDLP leader John Hume said it heralded a new future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

"What I look forward to now is the institutions being in place early in the New Year and getting down to the real work of working together and harnessing the international good will - then we will start transforming our society."

Gerry Adams: "There's a lot more to be done"
But Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams gave a qualified welcome to the agreement. He said while it fell short of fulfilling Sinn Fein's objectives it cleared the way and showed that "progress is possible".

Legislation will be put through the British and Irish parliaments early in the New Year to enable a transfer of powers in late February or early March.

Mr Trimble made clear on Friday that there would be no shadow executive set up in advance of the legislation - something which he hopes will appease dissidents in his own party who abhor the prospect of sitting down with Sinn Fein in an executive before the IRA begins decommissioning.

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