The Westminster election in the North of Ireland on Thursday has
become a two-horse race between Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's DUP.
Both parties are hoping to gain bargaining power as the North's
largest party in the upcoming peace process negotiations.
Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty this week flagged up the potentially
historic power-shift: with a strong nationalist turnout, Sinn
Fein could become the largest political party in the North in
terms of vote share.
Mr Doherty said canvass returns from the across the North
demonstrate that his party could secure the highest level of
support in the election.
"If the largest party after this election is both nationalist
and pro-Agreement this will impact significantly on the future
of the political process," he said.
"A decisive vote for Sinn Fein will send a clear signal to the
two governments that the process of change outlined in the Good
Friday Agreement must be accelerated.
"A strong Sinn Fein mandate will also act as a reality check for
unionists who believe that they can turn back the clock, that
the days of domination and second class citizenship are over and
that the process of change is now irreversible."
However, the DUP has used the prospect of Sinn Fein gains in a
bid to drive its supporters to the polls. DUP deputy leader
Peter Robinson was sounding the alarm yesterday.
"Unionists must avoid the nightmare scenario of republicans
speaking for Ulster after the votes are counted on Friday," he
said. "With the Sinn Fein vote on the rise it is vital that
unionists turn out to vote on Thursday and vote for the DUP.
"Sinn Fein could not be clearer about the worldwide impact of a
victory for them on election day. Unionists must take heed of
this when they go out to vote on Thursday."
The DUP appear likely to pick up seats from David Trimble's
Ulster Unionist Party in East Antrim, South Antrim and in Lagan
Valley, the constituency around Lisburn, west of Belfast.
But Ian Paisley's party has found itself hit by a late and
unexpected sex scandal involving a reported homosexual
hotel-room tryst by its youthful candidate in Newry and Armagh,
Paul Berry. The DUP has stonewalled requests for comments and
has said only that the matter is in the hands of its solicitors.
The prize of David Trimble's own Upper Bann constituency,
centred on Portadown in north Armagh, is a key target. A victory
for the DUP's David Simpson would likely mark the end of David
Trimble's increasingly fraught political career.
Sinn Fein is likely to take Newry and Armagh from the SDLP, and
have outside chances to make a gain from the SDLP in South Down
and from the DUP in North Belfast. But the nationalist Foyle
constituency, where SDLP leader Mark Durkan is attempting to
regain the seat held by former party leader John Hume, is the
Campaigning in Derry this week flanked by MPs Pat Doherty,
Martin McGuinness and Michelle Gildernew, it was clear that a
huge effort is being made Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin in a
region that was once seen as the SDLP's heartland.
Local economic issues have dominated the election in Derry, and
McLaughlin has sought to reverse ehat he said were decades of
discrimination and under-funding for the second largest city in
The SDLP is pinning its hopes in South Belfast, where pundits
place it in a three-way battle with the two unionist parties.
Nationalists have long sought to reverse the imbalance of
representation in Belfast where unionists hold three of the four
Control of Belfast City Council has hung on a knife edge for
more than a decade, with the Alliance Party regularly finding
itself with the balance of power.
The political make-up of City Hall last time around saw 25
councillors on the unionist benches with the opposition seats
being filled by 23 nationalists and three Alliance.
Sinn Fein was the biggest party in 2001 with 14 councillors and
28 per cent of the vote.
The likelihood is that they will pick up at least one extra
seat, in south Belfast or the north of the city. But a meltdown
of the Ulster Unionist vote could potentially see the DUP
becoming the largest party in City Hall.
Deputy Lord Mayor Joe O'Donnell's seat in east Belfast for Sinn
Fein is said by some to be under threat following the
controversy over the murder of local man Robert McCartney in
However, a Sinn Fein rally in the area on Monday was well
supported, with a number of high profile speakers including
former MP and civil rights leader Bernadette McAliskey, all
backing the party's candidate Deborah Devenny.
Republican murals which were rededicated at the rally included
one depicting hunger strikers who died in 1981. Also
commemorated is the 24th anniversary of the death of hunger
striker and former Fermanagh South Tyrone MP, Bobby Sands, which
occurs on May 5 -- election day.
At the rally, McAliskey spoke of how the civil rights movement
developed into "the death of 10 men" and political and electoral
changes in nationalism and republicanism.
"It is a long road but there is a bigger picture out there and a
bigger picture for the people of the Short Strand," Ms McAliskey
McAliskey is also backing veteran socialist Eamonn McCann for a
council seat in Derry, where the SDLP is currently the largest
party on the council. However, Sinn Fein believes it can make
gains in the Northland and Shantallow wards, and possibly in the
Rural ward, where it is also competing against McCann.
But back on the main stage in London, Tony Blair has vowed, if
re-elected, to advance the peace process. As he embarked on the
final leg of the election campaign, Mr Blair claimed that the
North had seen progress in recent years.
"It still comes back to the same basic question, which is that
the way forward is for republicans to give up violence
completely and totally and go into a different mode of operation
altogether of exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and for
unionists on that basis to share power."
Both unionist parties have now declared their opposition to
sharing power with Sinn Fein in any circumstances.
Reacting to Mr Blair's comments, DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley
said Mr Blair had shown he was determined to bring "Sinn
Fein/IRA" into government.
"The cat is out of the bag. He has sold himself to have the
representatives of IRA terrorists in the government of Northern
Ireland on their terms," Mr Paisley said.
The only way to stop "this folly and treachery" was a vote for
his party candidates.
"Only a massive vote by unionists can stop Blair's madness,"