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Last Updated: Friday, 28 November, 2003, 21:24 GMT
Players assess election fallout
BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy
Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

It has been described as "an election to a ghost assembly" and few could disagree.

In the foreseeable future at least, there is no prospect of a functioning assembly at Stormont.

It was suspended more than a year ago and replaced by direct rule ministers from Westminster.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair in Wales
The British and Irish Prime Ministers are assessing the situation
Last-ditch moves to reach a unionist-republican agreement before the election proved unsuccessful, so the parties went into the poll against the background of a deadlocked political process.

The 1998 Stormont administration - once dubbed the "Humpty Dumpty assembly" because of its instability - will now be little more than a phantom memory for the politicians.

The newly-elected MLAs can use party facilities at Stormont, but they aren't going to be moving into their new personal offices.

And as things stand, neither the DUP's Peter Robinson nor Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein can look forward to leading an Executive.

'No compromise'

That's because the DUP leader Ian Paisley has ruled out compromise.

He is on record as saying that Sinn Fein, now the largest nationalist party in the assembly, have to disband as well as the IRA.

He has also declared the Good Friday Agreement dead and buried.

While the DUP may want devolution, it says it doesn't like the Good Friday Agreement model.

DUP leader Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley's DUP is now the biggest party in Northern Ireland
But the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, says the Agreement is the price of devolution.

With David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party now lagging behind the DUP, the focus is now largely on the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Both will go to the prime minister in London. The DUP's deputy leader Mr Robinson has a shopping list but what can Mr Blair give him that Mr Trimble couldn't get?

Party talks

Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern have been assessing the situation with Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy, who is set to hold talks with the parties.

Is Gerry Adams going to try and make things work by waiting for Ian Paisley to depart the scene in the hope that more pragmatic elements in the DUP cut a deal?

Or is he likely, after a period of time, to declare Northern Ireland a failure, to blame unionism and to demand joint authority with London and Dublin? It's certainly an option.

Sinn Fein will turn the situation to their advantage, whatever happens.

The good news perhaps is that the peace process is safe - it's the political process that is in deadlock.

David Trimble threw down a challenge to Ian Paisley
Will Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble survive long enough to realise his strategy?
The DUP, with or without Ian Paisley, seem to be in the same place the Ulster Unionists were five years ago.

So it could take the DUP that long to achieve a settlement. Are its supporters ready for one?

The mood seems to be to delay compromise with nationalism for as long as possible, no matter how inevitable it is.

For a start, few believe the DUP will make any compromises with Sinn Fein ahead of next June's European election or the general election in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has warned that his party will bounce back.

He's already got a strategy - try to get another election as soon as possible in the hope that unionists will realise the DUP has, in his words, sold them a fraud.

The DUP can't get a better deal, according to Mr Trimble.

Mark Durkan and Gerry Adams
Mark Durkan's SDLP were overtaken by Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein
He believes they can't deliver devolution and his great hope is that unionists, realising that the IRA will not move for the DUP, will come back to his party.

Despite his problems, Mr Trimble will point out he did get three acts of IRA decommissioning. But will he survive long enough to realise his strategy?

The SDLP has had a bad election. Although they will argue they are still players as Sinn Fein had previously been regarded as important with 18 seats, the party doesn't have the edge that the IRA gave Sinn Fein.

Nor does it appear to have the same potential for growth. The SDLP is coming from the top spot.

Many observers view the party as being on a slippery slide, and the SDLP will no doubt use the intervening period to try and regroup.

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, once so confident that the Agreement forged on that April day in 1998 would stick, must be wondering where it all went wrong.

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