BELFAST -- Hard-liners dominated the early returns yesterday from an election to decide who will control the Northern Ireland Assembly -- and hold the key to revived power-sharing in this British territory.
The Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of Sinn Fein appeared on course to strengthen their hold over each side of the assembly. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley and his deputy, Peter Robinson, were among the first to win easy re election.
Vote counting is likely to take two days before all winners of the 108-member assembly are declared. Northern Ireland's complex system of proportional representation allows voters to pick candidates in order of preference, requiring ballots to be counted several times.
At stake is achieving the central aim of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998: an administration drawn equally from the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority that can govern Northern Ireland in stability and a spirit of compromise.
A moderate-led coalition collapsed in 2002. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein triumphed in the last assembly elections in 2003, making power-sharing harder to revive, principally because Paisley rejected the Good Friday pact and refused even to talk to Sinn Fein.
Paisley, as leader of the top vote-winning party, could claim the top power-sharing post of "first minister," while Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness would be his party's candidate for "deputy first minister," a position with equal powers despite its title.
The moderate parties that led the previous administration -- the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Protestants of the Ulster Unionists -- were expected to finish in third and fourth place. They would receive two posts each in the next 12-member administration. Of the first 31 seats to be declared, the Democratic Unionists won 14 and Sinn Fein won 13.
The Democratic Unionists will face immediate pressure from the British, Irish, and US governments to cut a deal with Sinn Fein.
But Paisley, who during a four-decade career has sought repeatedly to thwart compromise with Catholics, said he would not be rushed. "The hard negotiations are now going to start," Paisley, 80, said outside a ballot-counting center in Ballymena.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists that the new assembly form an administration by next week, so that Britain can transfer control of 13 government departments to Belfast hands by March 26.