Northern Ireland’s political leaders are facing an anxious wait after yesterday’s election, intended to restore self rule to the province and end decades of conflict.
Ian Paisley’s staunchly pro-British DUP is expected to do best when vote counting begins later this morning.
But to become First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, he will have to agree to share power with the pro-Irish Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams.
That is something he has sworn never to do in the past. But the Republican militants, the IRA, have given up their armed struggle. And now Sinn Fein has agreed to support the province’s police and judiciary, Paisley may come round.
Underlining just how big a shift is involved, Paisley’s number two in the assembly would most probably be Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness – a one-time IRA commander.
McGuinness was minister for education during the last attempt at self rule. The assembly at Stormont was suspended amid claims of IRA spying in 2002.
The British government is giving the parties until March 26 to agree a new cabinet.
If they fail, London says it will scrap the assembly for good and continue running the province’s affairs itself, with additional input from Dublin.