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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2007, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
New jobs for the boys and girls
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Secretary of State Peter Hain says he will give would-be ministers access to government departments if he knows who they are ahead of 8 May.

Does the line-up alongside Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams offer clues to future ministerial posts?

That means the parties have an incentive to sit down in the next few days and agree the ministerial line-up.

This idea seems to suit the parties, as it is one way of avoiding pitfalls and alllowing leaders to match the personality with the portfolio.

The first and deputy first ministers are already nominated, with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness set to lead the Executive.

Guessing game

In the meantime, the guessing game continues. For clues, let's look at the historic picture taken this week of Ian Paisley's and Gerry Adams' first ever formal talks.

Beside Ian Paisley sit three MPs. The image implies a ministerial line-up starting with Peter Robinson, who is set to take finance, along with former ministers Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell.

If this is the case, then there is one other minister still to be found. And tucked in behind the DUP leader were a number of high-fliers, including MPs Iris Robinson, Sammy Wilson and Jeffrey Donaldson.

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But many are betting on the woman at Ian Paisley's left elbow, Arlene Foster, the MLA for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

Stephen Dempster, the News Letter's Political Editor, said she is one to watch.

"Unionists do feel alienated in the west and Fermanagh is one big area.

"Arlene has that tick in her box already. She's a solicitor and brings a legal mind. She's a very clever woman... She's popular with the party."

But Mr Dempster said he would not discount the others, who might benefit if the portfolio the DUP gets is particularly suited to their talents: for example, Iris Robinson in health or Sammy Wilson in education.

Mrs Robinson could lose out, however, on the basis that her husband is already in the Executive.

Ian Paisley Jr is being tipped to take a junior post in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister, where he can assist his father and keep an eye on Martin McGuinness.

Sinn Fein is saying little about its choices.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan and UUP leader Sir Reg Empey
The SDLP's Mark Durkan and the UUP's Sir Reg Empey discuss events
Might Martina Anderson, the Foyle MLA who is tipped to take on Mark Durkan at the next Westminster election, be a contender for a junior minister's post in charge of community relations?

This would complement her role in unionist outreach. She was not at the historic meeting on Monday but Catriona Ruane was and is widely expected to be one of the three ministers selected.

She was prominently placed at the top table beside Martin McGuinness.

She topped the poll in the South Down assembly race, and Sinn Fein is targeting a Westminster seat there.

Irish News columnist Brian Feeney said she will be pushed forward to raise her profile, and her ability to speak Irish is another advantage.

Martin McGuinness (l) and Ian Paisley (r)
Martin McGuinness (left) is set to be deputy first minister
"Catriona Ruane is good at Irish - they need that - and is a woman. She would fit the picture," he said.

Newry and Armagh MP Conor Murphy, viewed as leadership material by some, was also prominent at Monday's meeting, as was John O'Dowd.

Mr Feeney described Mr O'Dowd as an "up-and-coming personality" in the party.

"Sinn Fein was very pleased with his performance in Upper Bann. He has been very prominent in the past two years in the party and is someone Sinn Fein will want to bring forward."

As for the Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey, himself a former enterprise minister, he has two choices to make.

Is education now a poisoned chalice? Aside from having to find a compromise on academic selection, there are a number of state schools facing closure
Martina Purdy
He will take one of the jobs and is known to have a shortlist for the other one.

At the moment, Sir Reg is not saying who he will select, and it may depend on what department is on offer.

But his deputy Danny Kennedy and Strangford MLA David McNarry are thought to be in the running.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan has only one choice to make and it won't be himself.

He is expected to appoint Margaret Ritchie, who could do battle in future with Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane for the Westminster seat in South Down.

There is a buzz that she might get regional development, a big spend department which includes responsibility for roads and rail, as well as water charges.

Health and education are the biggest departments and Sinn Fein seized them last time, partly because those with the first choices viewed health as a poison chalice.

The DUP and Ulster Unionists blamed each other when Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness took education and vowed not to let it happen again.

But is education now a poisoned chalice? Aside from having to find a compromise on academic selection, there are a number of state schools facing closure.

Mr Feeney and Mr Dempster say those factors make education unattractive to the DUP as well.

There's speculation Sinn Fein will opt for enterprise, as it is high-profile and has great scope for cross-border co-operation.

After all, the biggest cross-border project in the last Executive was forged by the Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey, who forged a deal on a north-south gas pipeline.

As for Culture, Arts and Leisure, it has a small budget but would prove quite attractive to Sinn Fein and the DUP, if for no other reason than to keep it away from each other.

Health is one of the toughest jobs in the Executive and may prove unattractive once again. "It's a bed of nails," said Mr Feeney.




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