Story Highlights• Hard-line Catholic and Protestant political parties win bulk of seats
• Blair, Ahern urge DUP, Sinn Fein to reach agreement on power-sharing
• Parties must meet March 26 power-sharing deadline -- or assembly abandoned
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BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Hard-line Catholic and Protestant parties have been urged to work together after winning the bulk of seats in the election for a new legislative assembly in Northern Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist Party took 36 of the 108 seats, six more than at the last election in 2003 and enough to make it the largest group in the assembly. Sinn Fein, the political ally of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, was up four seats at 28.
The vote was designed to clear the way for the creation of a new power-sharing local executive that can pull support from across the sectarian divide.
Urging the DUP and Sinn Fein to cooperate in forming a government, British and Irish prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern called the vote "an opportunity of historic proportions" that was not to be missed.
"The message of the electorate is clear: after so many years of frustration and disappointment, they want Northern Ireland to move on to build a better future together through the devolved institutions," the premiers said in a joint statement Friday.
"The mandate that has been given to the parties from people in Northern Ireland is to get on and do the business."
A moderate Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, which helped broker the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, won 18 seats and the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party won 16 seats. The remaining seats were shared between smaller parties and independent candidates.
The DUP and Sinn Fein also won the most seats in the last assembly election in 2003, but they were unable to reach an agreement on formation of a power-sharing executive, leaving the British government to run Northern Ireland directly from London.
This time around, to put pressure on the two sides, the British and Irish governments have set a March 26 deadline for the DUP, Sinn Fein and the other parties to reach an agreement.
If they don't, the assembly will be abolished -- which would be seen as a serious setback to the peace process started nearly a decade ago, which has largely ended three decades of sectarian violence.
On Thursday British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain told CNN that failure would mean "no chance of a settlement for a good long time, maybe years."
Asked by CNN whether he is prepared to work with Protestants who support Northern Ireland's continued union with Britain and shake Paisley's hand, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he had "no problem" with that.
"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, charging that Sinn Fein's recent decision to support Northern Ireland's new police service -- a key Protestant 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," Paisley said.
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