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PROTESTANT leader Ian Paisley said yesterday a strong election showing had “strengthened his hand” in moving towards sharing power with Catholic foes in Northern Ireland. “I can afford now to go a bit farther in things because I am confident the people are with me,” said Paisley, a firebrand preacher who is key to any power-sharing deal, after meeting Britain's Northern Ireland minister, Peter Hain. Paisley's pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) strengthened its hold in last week's vote for a provincial assembly and is under pressure from Britain to share power with Sinn Fein, political ally of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

London and Dublin have given Northern Ireland's parties until March 26 to agree to work together or face the indefinite continuation of direct rule - a prospect unpalatable to Sinn Fein, which ultimately wants a united Ireland. The election was widely regarded as a test of support for power-sharing. A 1998 peace deal largely ended three decades of violence in which 3'600 people were killed but a lasting political settlement has proved elusive. While both the DUP and Sinn Fein favour reviving local government in theory, they still do not talk to each other.