Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minster Tony Blair will have to face up to the reality that a majority of unionists want a new settlement in Northern Ireland, they were told today.
As the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists powered their way towards becoming the largest party in the next Assembly, one of its senior MPs Gregory Campbell insisted London and Dublin would have to admit Good Friday Agreement was no longer workable.
East Derry MP said as the two Prime Ministers prepared to meet in Cardiff: “Both of them will have to face up to the same reality as (Ulster Unionist Leader) David Trimble.
“They will have to wake up and smell the roses.
“There is a need for a new settlement which can command the support of both unionists and nationalists.
“The Belfast Agreement clearly has been rejected by Unionists and by their own rules, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern must now admit that there is a need for a new settlement.
“It is not rocket science.”
The Democratic Unionists had established a clear lead at the end of the first day of counting at the Stormont election, returning 20 MLAs.
Sinn Féin hammered its main nationalist rival Mark Durkan’s SDLP, securing 13 of the seats allocated so far.
Mr Trimble’s Ulster Unionists had 12 Assembly members returned while the SDLP had only three.
Both parties were hoping to recover some ground during today’s count across the 80 constituencies.
However there were some predictions that the DUP could take as many as 30 seats.
Smaller cross communities and unionists parties were squeezed along with the SDLP in the election, with several well-know faces struggling to hold on to seats.
The leader of the cross community Alliance Party David Ford was battling to fend off a Sinn Féin challenge for his seat in South Antrim and Monica McWilliams of the Woman’s Coalition was facing an uphill task to hold on in South Belfast where Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey was poised to make an historic breakthrough for his party.
Billy Hutchinson of the loyalist Progressive Unionists also looked as if he might lose his seat in North Belfast to Sinn Féin.
Mr Durkin’s SDLP was coming to terms with the loss of former West Belfast MP Dr Joe Hendron’s Assembly seat where the DUP’s Diane Dodds pulled off a spectacular victory.
The SDLP also lost John Fee’s Newry and Armagh’s Assembly seat and was facing the possibility that its Policing Board member Joe Byrne could miss out in West Tyrone.
If the DUP were to emerge today as the largest Unionist party, it would deliver a shattering blow to Irish and British government hopes of restoring a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland swiftly.
Dublin and London were hoping that Mr Trimble’s Ulster Unionists could somehow draw level with the DUP when votes were transferred under Northern Ireland’s complex proportional representation system.
However the reality facing them was that even if Mr Trimble were to achieve that, he would be facing a less favourable Assembly team with leading Good Friday Agreement sceptics like Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside in the ranks.
Mr Campbell said it was clear today that the Democratic Unionists spoke for the majority of unionists having achieved the highest share of the vote in Northern Ireland.
“What is absolutely certain is that we are the largest party in terms of first preference votes,” he said.
“Nobody can dispute that. Nor can they dispute a party which at the last Assembly election had 20 seats and which now looks like it could return with a 40% gain in seats.
“The spin doctors in Downing Street cannot minimise the message that this election has sent out that there is deep unionists dissatisfaction with the Agreement and a need for change.”
Mr Campbell said it was also clear that if a settlement was going to work, all sides at the negotiating table would have to be equal.
“That means no IRA violence, that the IRA has to fold up its tents and go away,” he told PA News.
“Everybody has to be treated as equal. No one can have a private army in negotiations and then they can take part in negotiations on creating political institutions which are acceptable to everyone.”