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Saturday, 9 June, 2001, 00:22 GMT 01:22 UK

Voters redraw political map

By Ireland correspondent Kevin Connolly

Voters in Northern Ireland had to wait longer than anyone else in the UK for their election results but when they came they brought a series of personal and political dramas that re-drew the province's political map.

They have served to cast a shadow over the future of the Good Friday agreement which has brought power-sharing and devolution to the province over the last three years.

For once the bare arithmetic tells the story: The Ulster Unionists ended the last parliament with nine seats and begin the next with only six.

Their anti-agreement rivals for the Protestant vote, the Democratic Unionist Party, had three, and now have five.

Sinn Fein have gone up from two seats to four and the other nationalist party, the SDLP, has held onto its three.

The immediate question as those results were digested was whether Mr Trimble might be forced to resign, but he was quick to insist that he is no quitter.

There are indications already that Sinn Fein has overtaken the SDLP in terms of its share of the Catholic vote, a historic achievement for a party which is the electoral face of a republican movement which also embraces the IRA.

Perhaps the key Sinn Fein achievement in the long term will be to take two seats formerly held by Ulster Unionists west of the river Bann - West Tyrone and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

A graphic map of the province on local television almost made it look as though in parliamentary terms unionist political success was confined to the north-eastern corner of the province around Belfast.

Conflict within unionism

That battle within nationalism has enormous long-term implications but the immediate political future will be determined by the conflict within unionism.

The Ulster Unionist Party has its doubters and sceptics on the Good Friday agreement, but its leader David Trimble, is seen as one of the deal's principal architects.

The series of humiliating blows his party suffered through the day, which at one point threatened to become an electoral meltdown, have changed the province's political landscape, perhaps for good.

His campaign was based on the understanding that the deal which brought Sinn Fein into government while the issue of IRA decommissioning was negotiated was the best arrangement Northern Ireland could expect for the moment.

His outspoken opponents in Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party are bitterly opposed to Sinn Fein being allowed into government before the IRA gives up its guns.

That position will not change, however often Sinn Fein insists it is unrealistic.

Mr Paisley will point to Friday evening's results as evidence that opinion within unionism has been drifting his way, a drift which he will argue must now be addressed.

There were to be talks on the future of the vexed issues of decomissioning and police reform this summer.

The question now is whether those talks will even be possible as the DUP insists the whole political agenda of Northern Ireland has been changed.

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