Northern Ireland's main Protestant and Catholic parties were out in front as final results were being counted yesterday in elections that could usher in a new power-sharing administration.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, the architects of moves towards restoring power-sharing government between the communities, were to meet later yesterday to discuss the election outcome.
The pair set an all-or-nothing March 26 deadline for new mem-bers of the Northern Ireland Assembly to agree on forming an executive between Protestant and Catholic parties.
However, there was no sign that the Protestant Democratic Unionists (DUP) would agree to share power with their old Catholic foes Sinn Fein, as the two parties made gains at the expense of moderates.
"I'll not go into government with a party until its fundamental belief and practice is democracy," DUP leader the Reverand Ian Paisley said, according to comments cited by the Guardian Web site.
The conservative DUP received 30.1 percent of first preference votes, (up 4.4 percent from the 2003 election), while socialists Sinn Fein got 26.1 percent (up 2.6 percent). Paisley and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams easily retained their seats.
With 72 of the 108 seats filled, the DUP had 25 seats, up two and Sinn Fein 24 seats, up two.
Full results from the complex single transferable vote system were not expected before late yesterday. Set up under a landmark peace deal in 1998 that largely ended 30 years of sectarian bloodshed, the assembly was suspended more than four years ago amid cross-community mistrust. Power was returned to London.
Under Blair and Ahern's plan to break the deadlock, if the two communities do not form an administration by March 26, the assembly will be axed and the province ruled from London indefinitely, with Dublin's participation.
Sinn Fein favors integration into the Republic of Ireland, while the DUP wants to keep the province as part of the UK.
Paisley, the 80-year-old firebrand who could become Northern Ireland's first minister in the devolved administration, gave his customary snub to Martin McGuinness, the Catholic tipped to become his deputy.
As the pair awaited their constituency results on Thursday at a counting hall in rural Ballymena, Paisley said McGuinness "needs to be converted to democracy."
"They [Sinn Fein] need to repent and turn from their evil ways," he said.
McGuinness is the number two in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the former paramilitary group in which he served as a commander.
"I'm not going to do anything to embarrass him [Paisley]. I'm here to be sensible," McGuinness said.