BELFAST: The polar extremes of Northern Ireland politics have strengthened their grip on the province’s legislature, ensuring they will control any future Catholic-Protestant administration, substantial election results showed Friday.
The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, publicly welcomed the triumph of the Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Catholics of Sinn Fein in Wednesday’s election for the Northern Ireland Assembly — and argued that voters expect them to cooperate immediately.
“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,” the premiers said in a joint statement. “Restoration of the devolved institutions represents an opportunity of historic proportions. It must not be missed.”
They said voters had given the two long-time sparring parties a mandate to forge a coalition by March 26. Both premiers insisted that the deadline must end either with power-sharing revived —or the newly elected assembly disbanded.
With 74 winners from the 108-member assembly declared, Democratic Unionists had won 27 seats with 30.1 percent of votes, Sinn Fein 24 seats with 26.2 percent.
Their moderate rivals — who led the last power-sharing administration that collapsed 4 1/2 years ago amid incessant Protestant-Sinn Fein conflicts — trailed badly behind.
All winners were expected to be confirmed by Friday evening. Northern Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation allowed voters to pick candidates in order of preference and required ballots to be repeatedly recounted and recalculated by hand.
At stake is 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 a spirit of compromise.
Reflecting the certainty of the outcome, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain met separately Friday with delegations from the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough Castle, his official residence southwest of Belfast.
Hain stressed that the March 26 deadline was set down in British law and was not negotiable. “I have no discretion On the 26th of March. Either there’s devolution (of power) in place or it falls away,” he said.
The British and Irish governments say peacemaking moves by Sinn Fein and the outlawed Irish Republican Army have removed any excuse for the Democratic Unionists not to sit down in Cabinet alongside Sinn Fein, which for decades supported the IRA’s bloody campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force.
Those moves include the IRA’s decision to renounce violence and disarm in 2005, and Sinn Fein’s conference vote Jan. 28 to begin cooperating with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Blair and Ahern are threatening to impose a “plan B” — giving the Irish government a greater role in governing Northern Ireland _ if Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley refuses to play ball by the deadline. They also say tens of millions of pounds (euros, dollars) in increased funding for Northern Ireland development hinges on a Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein coalition taking off this month.
But Paisley and his senior deputies say the deadline is an illogical bluff. 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?” said Democratic Unionist lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson.
“When it comes to dissident republican activity, Sinn Fein needs to make it clear that they are on the side of the police and the rule of law, not trying to have it both ways and straddling the fence,” he said.
Paisley, as likely leader of the party with the most assembly seats, 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 1999-2002 administration —the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or SDLP, and the Protestants of the Ulster Unionists — appeared certain to finish in third and fourth place, respectively. They would be entitled to one or two posts each in the 12-member administration.