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N. Ireland votes in a step toward power-sharing deal

It is unclear whether the British province's new parliament can work out an agreement by the March 26 deadline.

March 08, 2007|William Graham | Special to The Times

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — Voters went to the polls Wednesday to elect a new power-sharing provincial parliament for Northern Ireland, in what is seen as the final chance to cement a lasting political solution to years of conflict.

The establishment of a working assembly, which this month is expected to choose the province's new leaders, is the last piece in a complex political jigsaw puzzle that began to take shape in 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday agreement.

Nearly 250 candidates are vying for 108 seats representing this region of 1.7 million people, which sits in British territory largely to the northeast of the Republic of Ireland.

Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), who brokered the peace agreement, said this week that he believed a power-sharing deal would be struck by the March 26 deadline set five months ago during talks in St. Andrews, Scotland.

"I think inevitably it's going to happen. It's a question of when and how," Mitchell said. "I confess I didn't think it would take this long."

The process has been plagued by disagreements over political issues, arms decommissioning and policing. As a result, a fully working legislative parliament has not met since 2002.

The Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, steadfastly refused to form a government with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, until the IRA gave up its weapons and supported the police.

The IRA, which fought the British army for a quarter of a century until a cease-fire in 1994, has turned in its weapons and in effect stood down its members.

At an extraordinary conference of party delegates this year, Sinn Fein took the symbolic and difficult step of agreeing to back the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, to support young Roman Catholics joining the once-hated force and to serve on the policing board.

Paisley, the 80-year-old Protestant leader sometimes referred to as "Dr. No," refuses to say whether his party will enter into a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein and the other parties, including the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, by the March 26 deadline.

Paisley says that his party "will not be calendar-led" by the British government and that Sinn Fein's newfound support for policing will have to be proved on the ground.

If the agreement is finalized, Paisley, whose party is expected to win the most seats, would become first minister of Northern Ireland, with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein serving as his deputy first minister.

This would be a huge step -- the two men have never spoken to each other.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said this week that the March 26 deadline was inflexible.

"This is the end of the line. The two governments [British and Irish] have made this abundantly clear. We have painstakingly, patiently and honorably followed and delivered, step by step, on the St. Andrews agreement," he said.

"It would be unconscionable and deeply regrettable if this agreed deadline was missed and if the opportunity to govern was not taken. Patience has already been stretched, and I do not believe that the people would take kindly to further delay.

"The war is over. The key issues are sorted. All must take responsibility in government for building and consolidating the peace. The time for taking that responsibility is now."

The campaign for the Northern Ireland Assembly has been one of the oddest in the province's history, focusing not on the usual constitutional issues of the border, a united Ireland or the link with Britain, but on bread-and-butter issues such as health, education and water charges.

Paisley and Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams faced heavy media attention as they cast their votes Wednesday.

Photographers and camera crews from around the world pushed for space as the unionist and republican leaders arrived at their polling stations in East and West Belfast.

The election count takes place today and Friday.

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