Northern Ireland's landmark Good Friday peace deal looked in deep trouble yesterday after elections to the province's local parliament brought strong gains for both Protestant and Catholic hardliners.
With 43 of the Northern Ireland Assembly's 108 seats filled, results made grim reading for supporters of the 1998 accord which delivered the British-ruled province from 30 years of inter-community bloodshed.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by tough-talking Protestant minister Ian Paisley, who is committed to reversing the Good Friday deal, won 18 seats -- only two fewer than its total at the first assembly vote in 1998.
In contrast, the previously dominant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) of Nobel Peace laureate David Trimble, leader of the province's power-sharing government before its suspension last year, was left lagging on 11 seats.
On the Catholic side, Sinn Fein, the political voice of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was perhaps the biggest winner after overtaking the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), winning 11 seats to its two.
An independent candidate gained the other seat.
Although the final results due out yesterday are likely to see considerable changes, given the complex transferable vote electoral system in which the bulk of subsidiary choices had yet to be factored in, the election appeared a major reverse for moderates.
Pundits had warned that the collapse of the assembly in October last year amid a massive breakdown of trust was likely to send many voters scurrying back to their tribal trenches.
The main victim was the SDLP, which won 24 seats in the last assembly. Leader Mark Durkan -- who by mid-evening Thursday was the only party member elected -- was downcast.
"There is no point in me trying to put any positive spin on this," he told BBC local radio.
Given that the DUP refuses point blank to deal with Sinn Fein, the success of both parties makes a deal to resurrect the assembly extremely unlikely, said Henry Patterson, professor of politics at the University of Ulster.
"With a clear anti-agreement majority among Unionists, and with Sinn Fein winning with nationalists, we are talking about a deep freeze for the assembly.
"This is likely to continue for some months, maybe a year," he warned.
The focus thus looked set to move to negotiations between the governments of London and Dublin, for whom the Good Friday deal was the result of years of painstaking negotiations.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern are to review the election at a meeting next Friday in the Welsh capital Cardiff, Blair's office said.
The ultimate fear is that attitudes could harden to the extent that the province slips back to the violence which claimed more than 3,500 lives over 30 years, but Patterson argued that this was unlikely.
"I don't think there is a threat to peace. Sinn Fein are too committed to the agreement," he said.
"Whatever happens, the war is over."
Some voters, notably younger ones, pronounced themselves unimpressed with the efforts of politicians such as Trimble, Paisley and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, all of whom were comfortably elected.
"They're all useless. They couldn't organize a bunfight in a bakery," said 24-year-old Gareth Arnott in Belfast.