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Northern Ireland vote count begins

Story Highlights

• Vote counting under way following elections for Northern Ireland assembly
• Vote could lead to power-sharing agreement between Unionists and Republicans
• Hardline DUP and Sinn Fein have continually clashed during peace process
• Parties must meet March 26 power-sharing deadline -- or assembly abandoned
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BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Vote counting is under way in Northern Ireland following Wednesday's elections for a legislative assembly amid hopes of a new accord between politicians from either side of the troubled community's bitter sectarian divide.

The hope is that the vote will round off the peace process begun in 1998 by seeing the Catholic Sinn Fein party, and their historical enemies, the Protestant hardliners of the Democratic Unionist Party, agree to serve together in a power-sharing executive.

But politicians have warned that failure would mark a major setback to efforts to bring stability to the region, with the British government setting a March 26 deadline for both sides to agree to power-sharing.

Peter Hain, the British Northern Ireland secretary, told CNN that failure to reach an agreement by that date would mean there would be "no chance of a settlement for a good long time, maybe years."

"I'm optimistic that we can achieve a working government, but it's a very stark choice for them -- get into power, or shut up shop.," Hain told CNN. (Full interview)

Previous deadlines have passed without consequences, but this time, the new assembly must form a 12-member Cabinet within a week after the election, and be ready to receive control of most Northern Ireland government departments by the March 26 deadline. Failure would mean the assembly's abolition the next day.

Under the plan, if both sides fail to come together, the 108-seat assembly, based in Belfast's Stormont parliamentary building, would be abandoned, and the region would revert to joint Irish and British control.

For the power-sharing assembly to work, the DUP must concede to cooperate with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which supports a united Ireland. Unionists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

Both parties also faced challenges from the middle ground within their communities from the Protestant Ulster Unionists and the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Speaking to CNN, Hain called on Unionists to put their distrust of power-sharing aside, claiming Republicans had made "historic moves" towards a permanent peace settlement through the IRA's abandoning of its armed campaign and decommissioning of weapons.

"We've seen a tremendous transformation in Northern Ireland. The bombs have stopped going off; the bullets have stopped being fired; there's prosperity and stability and peace on a basis never before seen," said Hain.

Asked by CNN whether he was prepared to work with Unionists and shake the hand of DUP leader Ian Paisley, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he had "no problem."

"I think it is very, very important in terms of representing a community that for a long time was marginalized and excluded. We're about reaching out to the Unionists," Adams told CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley.

But Paisley told CNN the question of power-sharing depended on Sinn Fein keeping its political obligations and said Sinn Fein's recent decision to support Northern Ireland's new police service -- a key Unionist demand for power-sharing to be accepted -- had been "qualified."

"You can't pick and choose how far you are prepared to go for peace," said Paisley.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was formed in 1998 as part of the Good Friday peace agreement towards ending 30 years of sectarian violence, but was suspended in 2002 when an IRA spying scandal stoked Protestant anger towards Sinn Fein.

Subsequent efforts to heal the rift between the two sides have proved fruitless. However, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose government has steered the peace process since 1997, is believed to be keen that both sides should reach an agreement before he leaves office, expected to be later this year.

Preliminary results for Wednesday's vote were expected to be available later on Thursday with the final count due to be completed by Friday.


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Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, left, and DUP leader Ian Paisley.

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