Britain's nightmare scenario of fiery cleric Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the IRA's political ally Sinn Fein squaring up as the leading choices for Protestant and Catholic voters respectively seemed to move closer with early results after Thursday’s vote.
If final results due on Friday leave those parties dominant, it will be hard to revive the suspended local assembly, centrepiece of the US-brokered 1998 Good Friday pact.
Paisley has refused to work with Sinn Fein, whom he calls “terrorists”.
London has ruled the province directly for over a year, since a political truce between pro-British Protestants and Catholic nationalists who favour rule from Dublin collapsed over allegations of IRA spying and brought the assembly down with it.
“There is unfolding a story in Ulster's history which we will be proud of-that the people of Northern Ireland didn't bow the knee to IRA/Sinn Fein," Paisley said after being re-elected.
His son, Ian Paisley Junior, declared: “Today there's been a nail hammered hard into the coffin of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.”
Devolved rule delays
It seems near certain Sinn Fein will be the biggest Catholic party, confirming their recent gains over the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
And if, among the Protestant majority, the DUP overtakes the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) of David Trimble, analysts believe it could be years before devolved rule is restored.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams'
party likely Catholic winner
Buoyed by surging support from early results, Sinn Fein said Paisley, who describes the Good Friday Agreement as an “abomination", would be forced to work with them.
“We are diametrically opposed on many political levels,” said former IRA bomber Gerry Kelly after holding his Sinn Fein seat in North Belfast. “However this nonsense from the DUP that they will not talk to anyone...flies in the face of reality.”
The assembly cannot sit until it is restored by Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy. With even Trimble refusing to return to power with Sinn Fein until the IRA pledges to disarm fully he is unlikely to do so in the near future.
Murphy said he would speak to the parties over the weekend before more formal talks next week.
British, Irish efforts
London and Dublin had backed the moderate parties in the much-delayed election, hoping they would hold sway with a clear mandate for talks to revive the assembly.
DUP and Sinn Fein dominance would polarise the province's politics, and even if Trimble holds off the challenge from Paisley, a minority in his own party also reject the accord.
Trimble said he was confident his party would remain the leading voice of pro-British Protestants.
In the early days of Northern Ireland's peace process former SDLP leader John Hume- who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with Trimble after the Good Friday deal- was instrumental in bringing Sinn Fein in from the political cold and so laying the ground for an IRA ceasefire.
But his successor Mark Durkan's reward has been to see his party hammered at the polls by their more radical rival.
In the last election in 1998 the UUP took 28 seats, the SDLP 24, the DUP 20 and Sinn Fein 18. By early evening, the DUP held 14 seats, the UUP nine, Sinn Fein five and the SDLP one.