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Hope Seen for N. Irish Power-Sharing

Catholic-Protestant rule can be revived despite extremist party's gains in election, official says.

November 30, 2003|From Times Wire Services

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland's British governor said Saturday that it was still possible to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration, despite the electoral triumph of a Protestant party opposed to the peace pact that proposed power-sharing.

Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy, one of the key negotiators behind the landmark 1998 Good Friday accord, said the rise of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party would make the effort much more difficult, but not impossible.

"The agreement is not dead, because most people in Northern Ireland want it to work. I am not underestimating the difficulties, but I am not unhopeful that we can make progress," said Murphy, who met separately Saturday with leaders of the other three major Northern Irish parties. He planned to meet Monday with the Democratic Unionists.

Results from Wednesday's election for the Northern Ireland Assembly gave the Democratic Unionists 30 seats, up 10 from the last election in 1998.

The Ulster Unionists -- traditionally the major Protestant party, but bitterly divided by the peace deal -- took 27 seats, down one.

Changes were almost as dramatic on the Roman Catholic side. Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party reviled by many Protestants, stormed ahead of its moderate rivals from the Social Democratic and Labor Party. Sinn Fein won 24 seats, up six, while the SDLP retained 18, down six.

The leaders of both Catholic-backed parties, Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and the SDLP's Mark Durkan, appealed to Murphy to convene the newly elected assembly immediately.

Durkan, speaking outside Murphy's official Hillsborough Castle residence, said Britain "must not let the DUP hold back progress or turn the clock back on change."

Adams agreed, saying Paisley shouldn't be allowed to exercise "a veto over progress."

But Murphy said convening the assembly now would only cause more problems. He noted that the lawmakers' first legal duty would be to elect the top two administration figures -- one each from the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.

The Good Friday accord requires that those two top figures be elected with support from majorities on both sides in the assembly. Although both Catholic parties back power-sharing, a majority no longer exists on the Protestant side.

If the assembly deadlocked over the matter, Murphy said, "automatically we [would] have to call another election. Now clearly there's no appetite for calling another election straightaway."

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