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DUP, Sinn Fein triumph in Northern Ireland vote

Northern Ireland's two major parties will return to power atop a joint Catholic-Protestant government with increased support for their policies of compromise and peacemaking, electoral returns Saturday showed.

The British Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein — bitter enemies for decades but, since 2007, partners in government — strengthened their hold on the Northern Ireland Assembly, the bedrock of the province's cross-community government.

The Democratic Unionists won 38 seats in Thursday's election, two more than in the last election four years ago. Sinn Fein won 29, up one. The result reinforced their status as the largest parties in the 108-member assembly and the co-leaders of government.

The outcome means Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson stays in the government's top post of first minister, and Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness — a former commander of the outlawed Irish Republican Army — as deputy first minister. Many Protestants had feared a surge in Sinn Fein support that would put McGuinness on top.

But Robinson, whose party once campaigned on pledges to "smash Sinn Fein" and refused face-to-face talks until 2007, said their unlikely partnership in a time of peace was exactly what Northern Ireland's 1.7 million citizens crave.

"When I set out in politics long ago, it was because a young friend of mine was murdered by the IRA," said Robinson, 62, outside one count center in a Protestant suburb east of Belfast. "I'm glad the days of daily murders have passed by ... and people simply don't want to go back there."

The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people and maimed thousands more in a 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. But the IRA disarmed and renounced violence in 2005, opening the door for a power-sharing deal with the Protestant majority.

Nonetheless, with IRA dissidents still plotting bomb and gun attacks in this British territory, tensions remain close to the surface — and burst through on some winners' podiums.

Democratic Unionist dissidents who oppose cooperation with Sinn Fein sought seats under a new political banner, "Traditional Unionist Voice." Only the movement's leader, Jim Allister, won a seat — and vowed to become the loudest, clearest voice in Belfast's Stormont Parliamentary Building.

"I will be a persistent thorn in the flesh of the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition ... and I will be a scourge on IRA-Sinn Fein rule in this province. That is my mission," Allister said.

At one counting center in Omagh, in the west of Northern Ireland, Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott faced verbal taunting from Sinn Fein supporters and responded in kind.

"I would expect nothing better from the scum of Sinn Fein than to come out like this! Their counterparts in the IRA have murdered our citizens!" he shouted over the din of hecklers.

Elliott's party won 16 seats, two lower than in 2007. The Ulster Unionists were the dominant Protestant party in Northern Ireland but over the past decade have been overpowered by the Democratic Unionists, a harder-line party that has mellowed rapidly since the IRA's 2005 peace moves.

Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, continued its own seemingly terminal decline despite being credited as a primary architect of Northern Ireland's peace process. The SDLP won 14 seats, down two.

Power-sharing was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998 — and for many years appeared unlikely to take firm root.

Coalitions led by the Ulster Unionists and SDLP suffered repeated breakdowns from 1999 to 2002 because of chronic arguments over the IRA's refusal to disarm. The underground group finally surrendered its largely Libyan-supplied arsenal after Protestant voters turned to the famously stubborn Democratic Unionists, who demanded the IRA's disappearance and Sinn Fein's acceptance of the police as their price of peace.

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Shawn Pogatchnik can be reached at http://twitter.com/ShawnPogatchnik