/ 8 March 2007

Northern Ireland takes step towards power-sharing

Northern Ireland took a step towards restoring a government shared between Protestants and Catholics as it counted votes on Thursday from an election for a new provincial assembly.

A strong showing for the main parties on both sides of the divide at Wednesday’s ballot could strengthen prospects for a return to sharing power between pro-British Protestants and Catholics seeking a united Ireland.

Main parties from both sides voiced optimism over the results.

Britain has threatened to impose indefinite direct rule, with help from Dublin, if Northern Ireland’s parties do not meet a deadline of March 26 for agreeing on a government.

Attempts at transferring powers to Belfast have foundered repeatedly since a peace deal in 1998 largely ended a conflict in which 3 600 people were killed. The last 108-member assembly did not even sit for a full day after it was elected in 2003.

But parties that were at the political extremes during the violence show increasing signs of readiness to share power.

Fundamentalist preacher Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the biggest Protestant grouping, told reporters at the vote-counting centre in his Ballymena heartland that his party appeared to have increased its share of the vote.

”The tide is running our way,” said Paisley, who has not said he is ready to sit down with Sinn Fein, but has left the door open — to the dismay of more hard-line rivals.

Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator of nationalist Sinn Fein, which is allied to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), said he believed his party had made ”significant gains”.

”For all politicians on the doorstep I think the message has been very clear — It’s time to stop the messing about,” said McGuinness. ”There has to be power sharing and I think Ian Paisley knows that.

Blair and Ahern hopeful

Agreement would also suit British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who wants a political settlement before he steps down this year, and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who plans to call a parliamentary election this year.

The two leaders have worked together on a political solution for Northern Ireland for almost a decade.

Election results will start coming in on Thursday afternoon, although recounts may push some declarations into Friday.

The share of the vote is not expected to change much from British parliamentary elections in 2005 when the Democratic Unionist Party scored 34% and Sinn Fein polled 24%.

The last power-sharing administration, between the more moderate parties, fell apart five years ago and London resumed direct rule.

Both main parties face dissidents within their own constituencies who accuse them of betraying their principles.

Despite IRA disarmament in 2005, Paisley’s harder-line rivals say that by leaving the door open to power-sharing he has broken a long-time pledge never to ”share power with terrorists”.

Sinn Fein faces challenges by several former supporters, who say the party was wrong to vote recently to support police and courts dominated by the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. — Reuters