Northern Ireland's voters Thursday chose a new government that is designed to bring both sides of this long-divided society together as never before.

And even as 1.2 million eligible voters were being given the chance to implement this key plank of the Belfast peace agreement, the Irish Catholics and British Protestants of one shattered village were already working together - picking their way through a familiar sea of rubble and glass shards after a bombing.Wednesday's car bomb in Newtownhamilton wounded a 13-year-old boy, wrecked shops and roofs, tore iron walls off of a fortified police barracks - the supposed target - and forced authorities to move polling booths away from the devastation.

"This might make people more determined to vote, but the people I've been talking to feel very down, very depressed that this should happen again," said Conor Murphy, watching a trickle of voters come and go at the relocated polling station in Newtownhamilton High School.

Murphy is the local candidate for the IRA-allied Sinn Fein Party, which would traditionally defend such bombings as necessary to expel British forces from Northern Ireland. But Wednesday's attack was claimed by the Irish National Liberation Army, an anti-British gang opposed to the larger Irish Republican Army's 11-month-old truce.

Ballots will be counted all day Friday and possibly into Saturday to determine how many seats each party will hold in the new 108-member Assembly. More than a dozen parties and independents are fielding 296 candidates.

Police in flak jackets stood guard at the more than 1,200 polling stations across Northern Ireland.

Activists from several parties also kept watch - in hopes of identifying supporters of rival parties using fake identification or false addresses to cast several votes, a chronic problem in elections here.

The outcome will do much to determine whether the peace agreement, struck in April among eight parties after 22 months of negotiations, will succeed.

In Dublin, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern appealed for northerners to deliver "a massive vote for those candidates who stand for peace."

"I think most of the candidates do," Ahern said.

One of the Assembly's basic tasks will be to select a 12-member administration of Protestants and Catholics that oversees government departments and cooperates formally with the Irish Republic. Like other controversial decisions, majorities of both Protestant and Catholic members will be required to approve these appointments.

Leaders of the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, back the agreement and are predicting they'll win the most seats. But two other Protestant parties that boycotted the talks because of Sinn Fein's involvement are hoping to win enough seats to stymie the necessary voting consensus.

While the agreement was easily ratified in referendums in both parts of Ireland on May 22, the 29 percent "no" vote registered in Northern Ireland came almost entirely from Protestants, who constitute some 55 percent of the population.