Northern Ireland heads back towards power-sharing

By Owen Bowcott, Ireland correspondent
Published March 8th 2007 in Guardian Unlimited

The Northern Ireland assembly, recalled from recess because of a row over the decision to display Easter lilies inside Stormont.

Northern Ireland's voters appeared today to have sent out a clear message that they wanted restoration of a devolved, power-sharing government.

Early results suggested a clear rejection of fringe anti-agreement parties on both the unionist and dissident republican extremes.

Bob McCartney, the leader of the United Kingdom Unionist party, who repeatedly attacked Ian Paisley for contemplating a power-sharing deal with Sinn F�in, appeared to be in danger of losing his assembly seat in North Down. The Ulster Unionist party, for decades the dominant force in Northern Ireland politics, showed further signs of disintegration. Its vote continued to crumble away.

The UUP party leader, Sir Reg Empey, was outpolled in his East Belfast constituency by Naomi Long of the cross-community Alliance party, who was elected on the first count.

"[The voters] have sent out a clear message that they see there's an alternative to sectarianism and segregation," she declared.

The party made a strong showing across the province.

The Alliance's Anna Lo could be the first politician from an ethnic minority to be elected to the Northern Ireland assembly.

The two largest parties in the last assembly, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn F�in, were set to consolidate their positions.

The DUP edged further ahead of the dispirited Ulster Unionists.

Peter Robinson, the DUP's deputy leader, said that many UUP voters were deserting to the Alliance.

Sinn F�in's vote in north Belfast increased as measured in first preferences while the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party lost ground.

Whether Sinn F�in and the DUP will be able to agree terms to share power will be the focus of intensifying negotiations in the weeks to come.

Gerry Adams, the Sinn F�in leader, described the DUP as having fought a "pro-agreement" campaign.

As votes were counted, the DUP's Iris Robinson said she hoped that "we will see a devolved administration sooner rather than later".

The government has set a deadline of March 26 for the parties to agree to set up an executive at Stormont.

There are expected to be hard-fought negotiations between the parties and the Treasury over the size of any financial package awarded to the province.

Final results are not expected to be declared until tomorrow.