N.Ireland leader ousted but could still swing British election

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Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson suffered a shock defeat in the British general election Friday but his party could still play a role in determining the next British government.

After no single party gained an absolute majority in Thursday's election, Northern Ireland's 18 seats could prove crucial in forming a coalition in a hung parliament -- with Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) holding most of the aces.

In a grim reminder of the latent terror threat to the province's peace process, a viable car bomb was left outside a counting centre in Londonderry, the province's second city, though it did not explode and the counts went ahead.

In one of the election's biggest shocks, Robinson was ousted from the Belfast East seat he had held since 1979, following a sex and cash scandal involving his wife Iris.

That allowed the cross-community Alliance party to win its first ever seat in the British parliament.

With 17 seats declared, the DUP had won eight, while Sinn Fein had won four, including party president Gerry Adams holding Belfast West.

However, because Sinn Fein do not take their seats -- they refuse to swear their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II -- it brings down the margin required for a working majority in parliament: another factor that could prove crucial.

"I have a job to do and I have a job to complete.... I will continue to carry out that important work," a stunned-looking Robinson said after his defeat.

"We will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have a bright and better future."

The Conservatives, who topped the Britain-wide polls, have already formed an electoral alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who are more moderate than the hardline Protestant DUP.

But it remains to be seen whether the DUP would be prepared to join their Unionist rivals in a Conservative-led government.

The Conservatives may have to offer significant concessions to the DUP, who never give ground easily.

Before his defeat, Robinson had said that in a hung parliament, the DUP would maximise Northern Ireland's influence by protecting the block grant given by Britain to the province.

Contrasting themselves with the Conservative-UUP alliance, he said Tory spending cuts would hit the public sector-heavy province.

The Daily Mail newspaper said Friday that any Conservative deal with the DUP "would be heavy for the UK taxpayer".

"The DUP would demand Northern Ireland is spared 200 million pounds (290 million dollars, 230 million euros) of cuts in state spending from an economy over-reliant on state jobs," it said.

Upping the stakes on the eve of the poll, Robinson claimed the DUP were being courted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party.

Robinson released a letter in which Brown promised to maintain the size of the block grant.

The Conservative-UUP alliance suffered a disappointing night, failing to win a seat in Northern Ireland. UUP leader Reg Empey came a near second in the South Antrim constituency.

Meanwhile Lady Sylvia Hermon, who left the UUP to stand as an independent in protest against the Conservative tie-up, romped home in her North Down seat.

Empey said: "I do think we need new ideas going forward and we put them. So far they have not attracted the level of support we wanted."

The car bomb in Londonderry was blamed on dissident Republicans opposed to the peace process.

Northern Ireland's security forces had been on high alert for the general election.

Last month they warned that dissident Republicans posed the biggest threat to security in the province since the 1998 Omagh bombing, the most deadly attack during the 30 years of The Troubles.

© 2010 AFP

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