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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 06:09 GMT
Talks begin after NI elections
Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley made significant gains in the election
Efforts to examine the way forward for the Northern Ireland peace process are beginning on Saturday after elections to the province's Assembly.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Good Friday Agreement, overtook the Ulster Unionists to become the biggest party.

However the DUP refuses to share power with Sinn Fein, which also made gains.

Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy is holding separate talks with the parties over the executive's future.

The assembly was suspended more than a year ago and the parties went into the election against the background of a deadlocked political process.

The British and Irish Governments insisted that the agreement remained the only viable political framework - and was not open to negotiation.

Initial test

Despite the governments' firm line, it is precisely a mandate for a renegotiation which the DUP says it has after winning 30 seats.

FINAL RESULTS
PARTY
+/-
TOT
DUP
10
30
SF
6
24
UUP
-1
27
SDLP
-6
18
AP
0
6
PUP
-1
1
NIWC
-2
0
UKUP
-4
1
UUC
0
0
NIUP
0
0
Others
+1
1
After 108 of 108 seats declared

Elected dissidents like Jeffrey Donaldson in David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, which won 27 seats, agree.

Mr Murphy is expected to see delegations from Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists over the weekend.

These meetings will be an initial test of the new political realities in the province, BBC correspondent John Thorne said.

The DUP is expected to meet Mr Murphy early next week.

Direct reversal

The election also saw Sinn Fein make gains.

It secured 24 seats in comparison with the SDLP's 18 - a direct reversal of the parties' positions after the last election.

FIRST PREFERENCE VOTES
DUP: 26%
Sinn Fein: 24%
Ulster Unionists: 23%
SDLP: 17%

The Alliance gained six assembly places, while the three remaining seats went to a County Tyrone doctor standing on a single issue over hospital services, maverick unionist Robert McCartney and Progressive Unionist David Ervine.

Nigel Dodds of the DUP said the party "now speaks for the unionist community and now speaks for more people in the province than any other party".

But Mr Trimble said the Democratic Unionists had "sold the people a false bill of goods".

He added: "The DUP can't deliver and that will become clear and it will become clear very quickly."
The election count took two full days

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said it had been a good election for his party.

"There is a crisis within unionism that will need some patience for the rest of us to show in the time ahead," he said.

Reflecting on his party's showing, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said it had to "work with the hand that democracy deals us".

Following the results, the British and Irish Governments said they would "seek a political way forward and to secure a basis on which the assembly can be restored and a functioning executive quickly established".

They also promised to bring forward proposals in the new year for a review of the Good Friday Agreement.

The White House admitted it had some concerns over the outcome of the election.
HAVE YOUR SAY
The process is dead in the water
Graham Walker, England

However, US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said she hoped progress could continue to be made.

The turnout for the election was 63.84%, compared to 68.8% in the 1998 assembly election.

A total of 108 seats were contested in the election.

A power-sharing executive will not be re-established at Stormont immediately.

The last assembly election in 1998 returned 28 Ulster Unionists, 24 SDLP, 20 DUP and 18 Sinn Fein MLAs.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Paul Anstiss
"The results pose significant problems ahead for power-sharing in the province"




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