- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

BELFAST — Hard-liners on both sides won Northern Ireland’s election, final results confirmed yesterday, setting the stage for a major diplomatic push to forge a Catholic-Protestant administration of bitter enemies.

Hard-line Protestants of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party finished first with 36 seats in the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, ahead of the major Catholic-backed party, Sinn Fein, which won 28 seats.

Trailing far behind were moderate Protestants and Catholics — who championed the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 and led a power-sharing administration that collapsed 41/2 years ago amid incessant Protestant-Sinn Fein conflict.

The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, called on the Democratic Unionists to forge a joint administration with Sinn Fein by March 26 — even though Mr. Paisley still refuses to even talk with Sinn Fein officials.

If Mr. Paisley continues to refuse, the two leaders warned, the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly will be disbanded and Britain will keep running Northern Ireland — this time giving a bigger role to the Irish government, a move opposed by Protestants.

Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern said ordinary voters were demanding this.

“After so many years of frustration and disappointment, they want Northern Ireland to move on to build a better future together through the devolved [power] institutions,” they said in a joint statement.

At stake is the central aim of the landmark Good Friday deal: an administration drawn equally from the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority that can govern Northern Ireland in a spirit of compromise.

But Mr. Paisley and his allies insisted the deadline is a bluff designed to coerce them into accepting Sinn Fein prematurely. They argue that Sinn Fein officials still cover up criminal activity by members of the IRA and other anti-British paramilitary groups.

“Is anyone seriously suggesting that on the 27th of March, it’s all over for Northern Ireland?” asked Democratic Unionist lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson.

Negotiations began yesterday even before the final ballots were counted. Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain met separately with delegations from the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough Castle, his official residence southwest of Belfast.

Mr. Hain stressed the deadline was set down in British law and not negotiable. “I have no discretion on the 26th of March. Either there’s devolution in place or it falls away,” he said.

Mr. Paisley said the IRA’s 2005 moves to disarm and renounce violence and Sinn Fein’s decision last month to begin cooperating with the Northern Ireland police were not good enough.

Asked whether he would share power with Sinn Fein, Mr. Paisley said: “Not the Sinn Fein as we know it today. Not the Sinn Fein that will not tell the forces of the crown where these deeds are being done, when they have the information.”

The moderate parties that led power-sharing from 1999 to 2002 — the Protestants of the Ulster Unionists and the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, or SDLP — finished in third and fourth place, respectively.

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