Northern Ireland: Pro-peace candidates expected to win
Web posted at: 7:03 p.m. EDT (2303 GMT)
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Compromise-minded Protestant politicians won enough seats in Northern Ireland's new Assembly to guarantee a good start for the peace agreement, election returns indicated Friday.
With only a third of the 108 seats in the new assembly declared as darkness fell, political analysts projected that the Ulster Unionists, the major Protestant party supporting the peace accord, will win the most seats in Thursday's elections.
The Ulster Unionists are expected to hold 30 or 31 seats when final results are announced Saturday, despite the fact that their share of first-preference votes is at an unprecedented low of 21.3 percent.
Voters marked their ballots in order of preference -- "1," "2" and so on, for as many candidates as they like. This ensures that the six most popular candidates overall in each district will be selected.
Northern Ireland's major Catholic-supported party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), appears likely to get more first-preference votes than the Ulster Unionists to finish at the top of the popular vote for the first time in Northern Ireland's history.
Achieving at least 30 seats will be crucial for SDLP in an Assembly where Protestants are likely to hold at least 60 seats.
Majority support from both Protestant and Catholic blocs will be required for passage of key decisions in the new Assembly.
Protestant power balance could be narrow
It appears the balance of power on the Protestant side will be uncomfortably narrow. At several centers where votes were being counted, supporters of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) heckled Ulster Unionists in public displays of Protestant divisions.
Paisley, who has led opposition to the peace accord, insisted that his party and other Protestants opposed to compromise will make life impossible for Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who is the man most likely to lead the assembly.
"They thought they had us hamstrung and buried," Paisley said in his rural North Antrim power base, where he topped the poll and his son, Ian Jr., won a second seat right behind him.
"And all over Ulster today the DUP is topping the poll! Dublin is sick! Mr. Tony Blair is sick!" he said in reference to the British prime minister. "And the sickest man of all is David Trimble!"
Paisley's party is projected to win about 22 seats, too few on its own to block anything. But the hardliner predicted that Trimble will soon be toppled as Ulster Unionist leader.
"There have been problems, no doubt about it," Trimble said outside the count center for his Upper Bann constituency, where he led the poll with 12,338 votes.
He admitted the election results were not as decisive as he had hoped for his party. But he added: "As far as we can tell at the moment, the Ulster Unionist Party will continue to be the largest party in Northern Ireland."
How are the Catholic parties faring?
Meanwhile, the SDLP was considered likely to win just 22 seats despite registering 22 percent of votes. Its rival for Catholic votes, the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party, is expected to win 17 to 18 seats after scoring a new high, 17.6 percent of votes.
Sinn Finn leader was swamped by journalists at Belfast City Hall when he became the first politician elected in the city, leading the poll in his Catholic West Belfast power base. He was in a buoyant mood.
"We have got a deal. We now have to implement that deal," Adams said.
Adams vowed to play a major role in new structures to foster links with the neighboring Irish republic.
An opponent of British rule, Sinn Fein changed its rules to allow it to take up assembly seats because it views the peace accord as a potential step toward its goal of a united Ireland.
Both Catholic parties back the peace agreement, which was struck in April after long negotiations between eight parties and the British and Irish governments.
SDLP leader John Hume, who topped the poll in his native Londonderry, reacted angrily to the possibility that anti- peace accord Protestants will try to obstruct the assembly's first major task -- appointing a 12-member executive from several parties.
The peace accord specifies that the administration must be appointed quickly and must decide by October how to cooperate formally with the neighboring Irish Republic.
'Whole world is in favor'
"The whole world is in favor of this agreement," Hume said, adding that Paisleyites would be exposed "as fascists if they try to wreck this agreement."
The new assembly is expected to bring profound change to Northern Ireland. It will assume many of the duties held by the British government, allowing Northern Ireland to govern itself for the first time in 30 years.
But contentious issues still need to be settled. For example, the police force, now called the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), is expected to be renamed. In addition, an attempt to attract Catholics to the force is expected to be made to make it more representative.
"The RUC is perhaps the biggest outstanding issue in this process," said Professor Paul Bew of Queens University.
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