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Our Focus programme brings you exclusive reports from around the world. From Monday to Friday at 7.45 am Paris time.

Latest update : 2011-05-09

Northern Ireland votes for a new Assembly

Northern Ireland heads to the polls on Thursday to elect a new Assembly at Stormont. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, long the face of Ireland's republican party, stood down last year in order to run for election in the Irish Republic. That's left his deputy, Martin McGuinness - a former IRA leader - in the running to become Northern Ireland's First Minister.

Northern Irish people go to the polls on May 5th to elect their 108 new regional representatives. The Northern Ireland Assembly has completed its first full term ever - a sign that the peace process is getting stronger. Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, split between unionists, who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, and republicans, who want a united Ireland.

For the first time too, Sinn Féin, the main political party on the Catholic or republican side could top the polls. Sinn Féin’s outgoing deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – a former IRA leader - could become First Minister ahead of the main Protestant and unionist leader Peter Robinson.

But the leader of the Democratic Unionists Peter Robinson has no fear of losing his job as First Minister.

"I have to say the reception we’ve been getting around the country would indicate that our voters are going to come out very strongly", Mr Robinson told France 24 .

"We want to be the largest party in Northern Ireland. We have been for some considerable time, we believe that we’ve been able to lead the province towards peace and stability".

In Northern Ireland, the elections have always been a question of identity. For three decades or more, they have been a sectarian count with people voting along community lines. The vast majority of Protestants vote for unionist parties (DUP/UUP), while Catholics vote for nationalist or republican parties (Sinn Féin/ SDLP).

But for the first time in this election campaign, through watching televised debates with the main party leaders and through following Sinn Féin and DUP politicians on their campaigns, you could not but feel the lines are blurred.

People do talk about so-called bread and butter issues like jobs and the economy, something relatively new. Then there is an unspoken political consensus between yesterday’s enemies. Ten years ago, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party would have refused even to stand in the same TV studio as a Sinn Féin politician. Today Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have to work together, they have to govern together under the rules set by the 1998 peace agreement, and they seem very comfortable with that.

"The public can now see that it is possible for unionists represented by Peter Robinson and republicans as represented by myself to work together", Martin McGuinness told France 24.

Does he think Northern Ireland is ready symbolically to have a former IRA leader as First Minister?

Martin McGuinness said: "I don’t think people have any problem with that at all. The only people who have a problem with that are extremist unionists, and I suppose the people who killed Ronan Kerr".

Ronan Kerr was a young Catholic police recruit killed last month in an under-car booby trap bomb left by dissident republicans. His murder and other attacks by the armed groups opposed to the peace process have been an issue on the doorsteps in the election campaign. Can their actions jeopardise stability?

The IRA renounced violence six years ago. Since then, dissidents have murdered at least two policemen and two soldiers. Over the Easter weekend, one of the groups, the Real IRA, threatened to kill more policemen. They are the group that bombed Omagh in 1998, killing 29 people.

But Martin McGuinness says "every time they attack the process, they unite" the vast majority of the population against them.

He is convinced that they do not have the military capacity to sustain a conflict on the scale of the one the IRA was involved in.

They have no political platform outside of the bomb and the bullet. People throughout Ireland remain largely unconvinced that killing Catholic policemen might lead to a united Ireland. And without popular support, it is unlikely they can do any serious damage to the peace process.

By Neale DICKSON , Hervé AMORIC

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