BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Votes were being counted Friday to determine whether Northern Ireland will be led by the British Protestant majority or by an Irish Catholic for the first time in history.
Early returns from Thursday's election showed strong support for the two dominant forces in Northern Ireland politics: the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of Sinn Fein. The two parties have spent the past four years in a surprisingly stable power-sharing government that developed from Northern Ireland's U.S.-brokered 1998 peace accord.
Political analysts said it wouldn't be clear until full results are declared Saturday whether the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein has been able to overtake the Protestant side and become the No. 1 party in this British territory for the first time.
Sinn Fein appeared poised to improve on its record-high 2007 showing, when it won 28 seats, second in the 108-member assembly. The Democratic Unionists won 36 seats then and appeared likely to win around that many again.
Whichever party wins the most assembly seats also wins the top post of "first minister" in Northern Ireland's government, while the No. 2 finisher becomes "deputy first minister."
Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson is currently first minister and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness — a former Irish Republican Army commander — is deputy. Power-sharing rules mean that their two posts have identical authority, so the two men cannot force decisions on each other.
Both parties insisted they didn't care whether they finished first or second — a position broadly dismissed by Belfast commentators as disingenuous.
"We never set the objective of a Sinn Fein first minister. There's no difference between the office of the first and deputy first minister. They're the one office, like political Siamese twins," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a Belfast native who earlier this year was elected to the Irish parliament in Dublin for the first time. He declined to defend the Belfast seat he had held since the assembly's creation in 1998.
"We never asked for a mandate to boost the prestige of the Democratic Unionist Party. We asked for a mandate to take Northern Ireland forward," said Robinson, who arrived at a count center east of Belfast to a rendition of "For he's a jolly good fellow!"
Their two parties overcame decades of hostility in 2007 to forge a coalition following the IRA's decisions to disarm and renounce violence, formally ending its 1970-1997 effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Robinson and McGuinness waged separate campaigns but stressed their close working relationship as they sat side by side in TV debates.
Nonetheless, the question of whether the Catholics can overtake the Protestants in any province-wide vote strikes at the emotional heart of Northern Ireland's conflict.
Northern Ireland's border was drawn in 1920 explicitly to ensure a sizable Protestant majority loyal to Britain, rather than to the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Ireland that was in the midst of a brutal war of independence from the UK.
But in the decades since, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland has steadily expanded into once-Protestant areas and today represents nearly 45 percent of Northern Ireland's 1.7 million residents. And Sinn Fein, with its staunch electoral machine and better funding, has proved an unrivaled ability to maximize its voter turnout.
Partial returns Friday showed voter turnout in predominantly Catholic areas exceeding 60 percent. Protestant areas, by contrast, suffered voter turnout of 50 percent or lower. Analysts said the disparity reflected greater Catholic enthusiasm for power-sharing and Protestants' continued antipathy to cooperation with Sinn Fein.
In one expression of that anti-Sinn Fein sentiment, a Protestant breakaway movement from the Democratic Unionists appeared likely to win at least one seat in the assembly. The group, called Traditional Unionist Voice, seeks to exclude Sinn Fein from the next Belfast administration.
The higher Catholic turnout could put Northern Ireland on course for a divided result, with the Democratic Unionists retaining more assembly seats but Sinn Fein winning a greater percentage of the total Northern Ireland vote.
In the coming decade, both parts of Ireland are expected to hold a joint referendum on unification under terms of 1998's Good Friday peace accord. The accord emphasized that Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, rather than join the Republic of Ireland as Sinn Fein wants, as long as a majority of Northern Ireland voters favor this.
Shawn Pogatchnik can be reached at http://twitter.com/ShawnPogatchnik