France 24's Eve Irvine reports as voting begins to elect a power-sharing administration.
BELFAST, March 7, 2007 (AFP) - Northern Ireland's voters trudge back to the polls Wednesday for what is being billed as a make-or-break chance at building a lasting power-sharing administration between Protestants and Catholics.
The elections to the Northern Irish Assembly are a key step towards restoring devolved government in the long-troubled British province, more than four years after it was suspended and handed back to London amid cross-community mistrust.
But just hours before the polls were due to open at 7:00 am (0700 GMT), both communities' main parties were at each other's throats.
It is the 10th time that the 1.1 million-strong Northern Irish electorate has been called to vote since the April 1998 peace accord which largely ended 30 bloody years of "the Troubles" between the two communities.
The Democratic Unionists (DUP), a hardline conservative Protestant party which strongly favours Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom, are expected to top the polls.
Their foes Sinn Fein -- a Catholic socialist group favouring integration into the Republic of Ireland, and the ex political wing of violence-renouncing paramilitaries the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- are tipped to come second.
The script agreed by London and Dublin says the pair are meant to form a semi-autonomous executive by March 26.
But the wrangling on thrashing out a deal seems like it might go to the wire.
"Until we are satisfied that Sinn Fein are democratic political party, we will not be sitting down in government with them," said DUP MP Gregory Campbell during a BBC television debate late Tuesday.
He said Sinn Fein needed to be "dragged kicking and screaming into democracy.
"Let's keep turning the screw until we get them where we need them to be. But I don't see that they can make up the ground between now and March 26."
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams accused the DUP of "posturing," "bombast" and blocking the path to a settlement.
"Either we go back to conflict, the blood, the tears we've all been through, or we go forward and build a new future for the people of Ireland," he said.
"Sinn Fein's resolve is that we will never, ever see this (the Troubles) happening again."
He defined the key question as: "Can (DUP leader) Ian Paisley say yes?
"I just wish that ordinary Unionist voters would cop on to (realise) what the DUP are playing at."
Wednesday's vote, using the single transferable vote system, is the third to elect the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has barely functioned and has been suspended since 2002, after IRA spy-ring allegations.
In a recent opinion poll, the DUP scored 25 percent and Sinn Fein 22 percent.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) -- moderate centre-left Catholic Nationalists -- scored 20 percent, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) -- moderate conservative Protestant Unionists -- got 16 percent and the cross-party Alliance scored nine percent.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair dreams of success in Belfast before his planned departure from office by September, in order to leave on a high note after the controversy surrounding the war in Iraq.
Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern have sworn that the March 26 deadline is absolute.
If the main parties from each side cannot agree to form an executive, then the assembly will be dissolved and Northern Ireland will be governed indefinitely from London, with the participation of Dublin.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said the DUP would "probably try to engage in some date-defying stunt" on the March 26 deadline.
He expressed frustration at seeing the Republic of Ireland's economy booming over the border.
"We want the Celtic Tiger roaring in the north," he said.
UUP chief Sir Reg Empey grumbled: "People have had enough.
"We've been at this for decades. It's time to make your minds up: either we're going to make our own decisions or continue to have them made for us by other people.
"If we do not do the business we are supposed to do there will be a huge outcry and anger."
Date created : 2007-03-07