With election results officially confirmed in Northern Ireland, the difficult job of trying to re-establish power sharing in the province in place of direct rule from London begins. But the results indicate that the tough task ahead has now gotten even tougher.

With Northern Ireland's government in political hiatus for more than a year, any hopes that the provincewide elections could produce a breakthrough seem to have been dashed.

In the new balloting, the Democratic Unionist Party, the DUP, made the strongest gains, and now has the most elected representatives.

But that party, which is strongly aligned with Protestants, has always refused to share power with Sinn Fein, the largest party representing the Roman Catholic community. The DUP demands more concessions first from the Irish Republican Army, the IRA.

With moderate parties on both sides of the sectarian divide having lost ground in the elections, the political impasse seems set to continue.

But London and Dublin are striving to get all parties back together and to re-establish the provincial assembly and the ruling executive body.

Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, Paul Murphy, concedes that this will not be easy.

"All the parties in Northern Ireland want devolution," he said. "They want their own form of government. Now, the opportunity is there for them to grab that. Of course, it is going to be more difficult now because of the election results."

While Mr. Murphy insists that the so-called Good Friday agreement has changed Northern Ireland immeasurably for the better, the job of political reform is far from over.

"We have made great progress here in Northern Ireland on all sorts of issues over the last five or six years," said Mr. Murphy. "And when you consider, for example, that the DUP has actually sat with Sinn Fein and other nationalists in the assembly and local authorities, and so on, it is not an impossible situation, it is more difficult."

Mr. Murphy will be holding one-to-one meetings with the leaders of all the parties over the next couple of days to gauge the new political realities in the province.

If the impasse cannot be resolved, the province will continue to be ruled directly from London, and another round of the elections could be needed in six months' time.