Northern Ireland's new Assembly convened Wednesday to elect a Protestant leader and a Catholic deputy to start down the slow road of governing this divided country.

Among the politicians gathered Wednesday were convicted IRA bombers and gun-runners, slayers of Catholic civilians, retired cops and British soldiers - and a camp of Protestant hard-liners determined to scuttle the whole project.In a symbol of the startlingly changed times, Mitchel McLaughlin, the Catholic chairman of the IRA-allied Sinn Fein Party, sat chatting with Billy Hutchinson, who spent 16 years in prison for shooting two Catholics to death.

April's peace agreement specified that the Assembly's 108 members should make decisions with support of majorities of its Catholic and Protestant members.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of a 28-strong bloc of Protestants opposed to the agreement, immediately signaled his determination to make every step of decision-making a drawn-out fight Wednesday.