CBSN

N. Ireland Power-Sharing In Doubt

Hard-liners defeated moderates in Northern Ireland's legislative elections, returns showed Friday, dealing a blow to hopes of reviving the joint Catholic-Protestant administration at the heart of the British province's 1998 peace accord.

As the count from Wednesday's election neared conclusion, analysts agreed that Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists would be the largest party in the 108-seat Northern Ireland Assembly.

Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party, was certain to become the largest Roman Catholic-backed party on the opposite side of the house.

Democratic Unionist deputy leader Peter Robinson jubilantly predicted that power-sharing might not be restored for a decade. The crisis-prone coalition collapsed in October 2002 over an IRA intelligence-gathering scandal inside the government.

Speculation mounted that David Trimble - whose Ulster Unionist Party struggled for five years to forge a stable coalition with Roman Catholics - could be forced to resign. But Trimble said he would stay on.

"I'm determined to see this job is done properly. I'm not going to settle for a stalemate," Trimble said.

With 82 of 108 seats decided, Democratic Unionists had won 26, the Ulster Unionists 21 and Sinn Fein 19. The moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, the major Catholic-backed party for the past three decades, had won 12 seats, and minor parties and independents won four.

An unusually low turnout of 61.4 percent suggested many voters had despaired of any progress.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, declined to comment on the election results as they met Friday in Cardiff, Wales. Blair had twice postponed the Northern Ireland election this year because he feared extremists would win.

Ahern said he expected multiparty talks to resume in Belfast to see whether the power-sharing formula in the Good Friday accord could be salvaged. Ahern said the 1998 deal was "an international agreement. It is not open for renegotiation. ... But it is open for review."

Forming a new power-sharing administration would require majority support from both the Catholic and Protestant blocs of the legislature.

Sinn Fein's emergence as the strongest Catholic party will make it even tougher to garner Protestant support. Under current power-sharing rules, Sinn Fein will be entitled to the administration's No. 2 post and three other Cabinet posts.

Full results were not expected until Friday night because of a complex system that allowed voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Six candidates were to be elected from each of 18 districts.

By Shawn Pogatchnik