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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 November, 2003, 11:30 GMT
Q&A: Key questions on NI election
Technically the government might be expected to recall the assembly
Northern Ireland is counting down to a fresh assembly election. Here, BBC Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport answers some of the key questions likely to be raised by the poll.

Why are elections taking place in Northern Ireland at this time?

The new Northern Ireland Assembly first sat in July 1998, but did not get any real powers until December 1999.

The election of a second assembly had been due to take place in May this year, but was delayed while the politicians tried to resolve disagreements over power-sharing, IRA disarmament and the end of all paramilitary activity.

Talks on these matters continued over the summer, but a tentative deal between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists fell apart at the last minute in October.

The government has decided to press ahead with the elections in any case, in the hope that the politicians might resolve their differences after renewing their mandates.

In the absence of a deal between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists over IRA decommissioning, what will happen after the 108 members are elected?

Technically, the government might be expected to recall the Northern Ireland Assembly and see if it can re-elect a first and deputy first minister.

This would require candidates for both posts to attract the support of more than half of all the unionists in the assembly, and more than half of all the nationalists.

However, this may well prove impossible, and an unsuccessful attempt to elect the ministers would set a six week clock ticking towards another assembly election.

With that in mind, the government is expected to maintain the current suspension of the assembly until it sees how the political land lies. It is due to hold a review of the Good Friday Agreement in December and this might serve as a vehicle to address the politicians' very different concerns.

Is there a possibility that changes in the strength of some parties could make an early return to power-sharing unlikely?

Yes, this could happen. If David Trimble controls a majority of unionists he would be expected to resume his recent discussions with Sinn Fein, with the intention of restoring the Northern Ireland Executive, once agreement on paramilitary activity and arms is reached.

But even if Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionists form the majority of unionist assembly members, their leader's freedom to manoeuvre might be constrained by the number of anti-Agreement unionists within his own ranks.

If Ian Paisley's DUP come out on top, they will demand the replacement of the Agreement and the negotiation of a new deal.

However, the government says it remains committed to the Agreement and nationalists insist that a new deal is a non-starter.

Did the last executive take any major decisions before devolution was suspended?

The executive was hampered by several interruptions - or suspensions - caused by the continuing lack of trust between unionists and republicans over paramilitary activity.

One of the most notable decisions was the move by the Sinn Fein Education Minister Martin McGuinness to abolish the 11-plus - an examination which 11-year-old children in Northern Ireland take when transferring between primary and secondary schools.

Another was the Reform and Reinvestment Initiative, which was a scheme to borrow money from the UK treasury which would then be pumped into much needed infrastructural investment.

However, the massive loans envisaged will be paid for in the future by increased local rates, so the initiative is seen as a mixed blessing by some taxpayers.

If and when a new executive is formed, will its chances of survival be any better than in the past?

Impossible to say. If the executive relied on exactly the same kind of wafer-thin majority as the last power-sharing government, then it will be bedevilled by problems.

If, on the other hand, it has the support of the entire spectrum through from the DUP to Sinn Fein, then a new executive would undoubtedly be more stable.

However, that's a big "if", and it may be that this election will merely be the curtain raiser for a prolonged round of tough negotiations.

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