- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

BELFAST — Voters in Northern Ireland handed power to hard-line Protestants in a stunning setback for hopes of reviving a Catholic-Protestant government, the central objective of the peace accord for the British territory.

The Democratic Unionists — who dismiss the 1998 Good Friday accord as a package of concessions to the Irish Republican Army — seized control of the Protestant side of the Northern Ireland Assembly, election results showed yesterday.

“If you surrender to gunmen and murderers, there is no hope for you,” declared victorious party leader Ian Paisley.

They will be sitting across the Assembly floor from a newly elected Roman Catholic majority from Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party with which the Democratic Unionists say they won’t even talk, much less form a government.

“This was a sensational result for both parties and a real hammer blow for power-sharing,” said Belfast political analyst Paul Arthur.

“There’s going to be no sitting Assembly for months at the very least,” he said. “We’re going to enter a probably tortuous period of re-negotiation or review — call it what you will — of the Good Friday agreement.”

Results after a two-day ballot count confirmed that the Democratic Unionists won 30 seats in the 108-member Assembly, up 10 from 1998. The long-dominant Ulster Unionists won 27, down one.

Sinn Fein won 24 seats, up six from 1998, changing places dramatically with its moderate Catholic rival the Social Democratic and Labor Party or SDLP, which won 18 seats, down six. Smaller parties or independents won nine seats.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan, whose party was the driving force behind power sharing, said the damage from Wednesday’s election could take years to repair.

“It is, frankly, depressing. The Democratic Unionists have got the result they wanted,” Mr. Durkan said. “They wanted themselves on top on the Protestant side, and they wanted Sinn Fein on top on the [Irish] nationalist side, so that they could declare the agreement a bust.”

Analysts agreed that Britain would not convene the Assembly until the next round of negotiations is exhausted.

The lawmakers’ first duty would be to elect new Protestant and Catholic leaders for a joint administration. But given the strength of the Democratic Unionist bloc, any such vote would be doomed. If that continued for six weeks, a new election would be required.

The British and Irish governments, which jointly oversaw the 1998 Good Friday pact that proposed power sharing, had toiled for the past year to avoid a much-predicted Democratic Unionist triumph.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair twice canceled the vote originally scheduled for May, hoping to make a deal with Sinn Fein that would shore up moderate Protestant opinion. An IRA disarmament move last month proved too little and too secretive for Ulster Unionist chief David Trimble, who wanted an IRA commitment to full disarmament.

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