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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 15:47 GMT
A tale of two polls
By Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

Northern Ireland's chosen electoral system of proportional representation - single transferable voting - yields up its secrets painfully slowly.

Ballot box
Voters use proportional representation to elect MLAs

It's taken two full working days to tally the votes and to manage the process under which the multiple preferences of each voter, expressed in numbered order, are transferred between the candidates in successive rounds of counting.

After each round, more candidates are eliminated, but the sheer length of the process tends to rob it of any drama - not surprisingly, there is talk of switching to an electronic system in time for the next election - and in Northern Ireland that may not be as far off as you'd think.

We've now had 35 election or referendum campaigns in 34 years. If you are asked to vote that frequently, it is hardly a sign that you live in a successful democracy.

Still, it would be fair to say that the big story of this campaign was fairly clear within a few hours of the polls closing, even if the details have taken rather a long time to establish.

It's best to think of the democratic process in Northern Ireland as consisting of two, separate elections conducted in parallel, one within the Protestant community, and one within the Catholic.

On the Protestant side, Ian Paisley's DUP is by far the dominant force, increasing its share of the vote by 4.4%

And Sinn Fein easily won the battle within the Catholic community - with its vote up by 2.6%

It is the outcome that was expected, these are after all the two parties who were at the centre of multi-party talks in Scotland last year which the British and Irish governments believe brought us very close to a restoration of devolution.

Clever campaign

Party Seats +/-
DUP 36 +6
SF 28 +4
UUP 18 -9
SDLP 16 -2
AP 7 +1
GP 1 +1
PUP 1 0
UKUP 0 -1
OTH 1
After 108 of 108 elected

But curiously, in a sense, the election has resolved nothing.

The big question going into the campaign was would Ian Paisley be ready to cut a political deal which would involve sharing power with Sinn Fein, and that remains the political question now.

He has a veto simply because none of the parties can go into government unless they all agree to - and while the DUP has plenty of smart, ambitious politicians in its ranks, it remains to some extent a personal vehicle for Ian Paisley.

Rarely in modern politics do important decisions depend so completely on what's in the heart and mind of one man.

Ian Paisley has managed to campaign cleverly, conveying a general sense that he might be ready to share power with Sinn Fein, whilst still raising problems over specific issues like policing which could yet provide him with a smokescreen for pulling out at the last minute.

But this is not just about smart tactics. The truth is, that the DUP leader may not have made up his mind himself what to do.

As Sinn Fein has abandoned traditional policies on political violence and hostility to policing, it's become harder and harder for the DUP to find concrete problems about sharing power with republicans.

DUP leader Ian Paisley is congratulated by his wife Eileen
The DUP leaders' relations with Sinn Fein are not cordial

There are politicians in other parties in Northern Ireland who'll tell you privately that psychologically Ian Paisley is finding it hard to shift his position on power-sharing after decades of castigating other unionist leaders when they contemplated it.

Tony Blair has brought all his charm to bear on Ian Paisley in recent months, and is doing what he can to encourage a deal now - speaking of the "historic opportunity for power-sharing which has been created".

These elections were part of a very tight time-table for restoring devolution in which the government insists the power-sharing institutions will be scrapped if the parties don't do a deal by 26 March.

It is impossible to say what Ian Paisley will decide to do - for all that he's been in public life for more than 50 years, he remains unknowable and unpredictable.

We are on safer ground predicting that somehow this deadline will slip or stretch. It's hard to imagine the British government abandoning the idea of power-sharing which they've cherished since the early 70s over the integrity of a single date in the calendar.

The trouble is however much the deadline might be stretched, in the end, the job remains to persuade Ian Paisley to say yes, and that task can only be postponed; it can't be avoided.



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