Midnight on March 26 is the deadline for a power-sharing executive to be formed from the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly so that devolution of power from Britain to the Belfast-based assembly can proceed. In the Stormont assembly elections, held on March 7, Ian Paisley's ultra-loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won 36 of the assembly's 108 seats and Sinn Fein won 28. The traditionally dominant Ulster Unionist Party won only 18 seats and the Social Democratic Labour Party won 16. Voter turnout was approximately 63%, out of a total population of 1.7 million.
Sinn Fein's decision on January 28 to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) fulfilled the party's obligation under the October 2006 St Andrew's Agreement, based on DUP-Sinn Fein negotiations sponsored by London and Dublin. This paved the way for the elections to proceed. The PSNI, formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is notorious for its brutal, discriminatory and politicised policing of republican and Catholic communities, and was not previously recognised as legitimate by Irish republican forces. Evidence of collusion between the RUC and PSNI with loyalist paramilitaries was released in a police ombudsman report on January 22, which linked police informants to at least 10 murders, and numerous other crimes from 1991-2003.
The St Andrew's accord also stipulated that in order for devolution to occur, the DUP must agree to share power with republicans. However, even in the wake of the elections, several DUP leaders have publicly cast doubt on whether they will fulfill this requirement and form the executive. Pressure is mounting on the DUP from London and Dublin as the March 26 deadline looms, and Associated Press reported on March 9 that "Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said Britain was prepared to give the incoming Belfast administration tens of millions of extra pounds ... to spend — but only if Paisley cooperated with Sinn Fein". USA Today reported on March 19 that "Paisley has demanded [of the British and Irish governments] a 'peace dividend' that includes slashing the 30% corporate tax rate to 12%".
The election results give the DUP five of 12 government posts and Sinn Fein four, with Paisley as first minister and leading Sinn Fein member Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. The power-sharing government of bitter rivals is likely to be unstable at best.
Many republicans viewed Sinn Fein's decision to support the PSNI as a capitulation to loyalist demands and a further step backward for the goal of a united, independent Ireland. A number of dissident republicans ran in the elections, including Peggy O'Hara, the mother of Irish National Liberation Army (the armed wing of the Irish Republican Socialist Party) fighter Patsy O'Hara, who died in the 1981 republican prisoners' hunger strike at the age of 23. More than 300 former Irish Republican Army prisoners supported O'Hara's campaign in the seat of Foyle, Derry, where she won about 1800 votes. Other republican and left-wing candidates contested seats; however there was no coherent, united left alternative organised to challenge Sinn Fein.
If the DUP refuses to share power with Sinn Fein, direct British rule will continue, but Dublin will have a greater role in policy-making.