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N. Ireland Power-Balance Hangs On Election

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was re-elected Thursday to the Northern Ireland Assembly as Sinn Fein appeared on course to remain the major Catholic-backed party in the British territory.

Adams, 58, topped the poll in his longtime power base of Catholic west Belfast. He was among the first declared winners for the 108-member assembly following Wednesday's election.

Sinn Fein activists cheered wildly in the major ballot-counting center, the King's Hall conference center in south Belfast, as Adams took the winners' podium. Nearby activists from Protestant parties booed or stood stony-faced.

Electoral officials were counting ballots to find out which Protestant and Catholic parties will control the Northern Ireland Assembly — and hold the key to revived power-sharing in this British territory.

The vote-counting is likely to take two days before all winners of the 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 dream 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 and hard-liners triumphed in the last assembly elections in 2003, making power-sharing harder to revive.

Political analysts and opinion polls universally forecast that Wednesday's vote will reinforce the strength of the two hard-line parties — the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of Sinn Fein — versus their moderate rivals.

This outcome would allow Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley to 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 Protestants of the Ulster Unionists and the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or SDLP — held out hope that voters would return to them and make power-sharing easier to resurrect. If they don't, these parties would receive two posts each in the next 12-member administration.

But in a likely sign of results to come, Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson became the first confirmed winner, topping the poll in his Protestant east Belfast power base. The Ulster Unionist leader, Reg Empey, came third, although he was expected to win a seat in later rounds of counting.

Whoever comes out on top will face immediate pressure from the British, Irish and U.S. governments to cut a deal.

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.

If that deadline is missed, Blair has promised to disband the assembly the following day, effectively giving up on a decade of toiling to deliver a power-sharing system.

But Paisley has not committed to cooperating with Sinn Fein, which for decades supported the IRA's failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland.

Paisley has soared in Protestant popularity on a stubborn platform vowing never to work with Sinn Fein unless the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein accepts British law and order. The 80-year-old anti-Catholic evangelist has never talked directly with Sinn Fein officials in negotiations.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams — who wants to gain power in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which faces its own parliamentary elections in mid-2007 — has come close to delivering Paisley's demands.

The IRA renounced violence and surrendered its weapons stockpiles in 2005. International experts last year said the outlawed group had stopped recruiting and training members, and disbanded units responsible for military planning, such as smuggling and designing weapons.

Adams last month rallied overwhelming support from Sinn Fein's grass-roots members for a policy U-turn — to begin cooperating with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. But the Democratic Unionists say Sinn Fein remains unwilling to help police solve certain kinds of crimes, particularly those involving members of the IRA and other anti-British paramilitary groups.

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