- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

From combined dispatches

BELFAST — Northern Ireland’s biggest Protestant and Catholic parties were far ahead of rivals yesterday in early results from assembly elections, as the province took a step toward restoring shared government.

A strong showing for the main groups could make agreement on a power-sharing government more likely, sidelining the hardest liners from both communities who oppose a deal and moderates whose own attempt at joint rule collapsed five years ago.

With 50 of 108 seats decided, 20 went to firebrand preacher Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, the biggest pro-British-rule Protestant faction.

Twenty also went to Sinn Fein, the main Catholic party allied to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which wants a united Ireland and fought against British rule for three decades. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was among the first to win easy re-election.

Vote counting is likely to take two days before all winners of the 108-member assembly are declared. Northern Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation allows voters to pick candidates in order of preference, requiring ballots to be counted several times.

At stake is achieving the central aim of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998: An administration drawn equally from the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority that can govern Northern Ireland in stability and a spirit of compromise.

A moderate-led coalition collapsed in 2002. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein triumphed in the last assembly elections in 2003, making power sharing harder to revive, principally because Mr. Paisley rejected the Good Friday pact and refused even to talk to Sinn Fein.

Mr. Paisley, as leader of the top vote-winning party, could claim the top power-sharing post of “first minister,” while Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness would be his party’s candidate for “deputy first minister,” a position with equal powers despite its title.

The moderate parties that led the previous administration — the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and the Protestants of the Ulster Unionists — were expected to finish in third and fourth place. They would receive two posts each in the next 12-member administration.

The Democratic Unionists will face immediate pressure from the British, Irish and U.S. governments to cut a deal with Sinn Fein.

But Mr. Paisley, an anti-Catholic evangelist who during a four-decade career has sought repeatedly to thwart compromise with Catholics, said he would not be rushed.

“The hard negotiations are now going to start,” Mr. Paisley, 80, said outside a ballot-counting center in the hard-line Protestant town of Ballymena.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists that the new assembly must form an administration by next week, so that Britain can transfer control of 13 government departments to Belfast hands by March 26.

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