The Westminster election in the North of Ireland on Thursday has become a two-horse race between Sinn Féin 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 Féin’s Pat Doherty this week flagged up the potentially historic power-shift: with a strong nationalist turnout, Sinn Féin 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 Féin 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 Féin 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 Féin 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 Féin vote on the rise it is vital that unionists turn out to vote on Thursday and vote for the DUP.

“Sinn Féin 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 Féin 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 main target.

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 Féin’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 North.

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 Westminster seats.


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 Féin 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 Féin is said by some to be under threat following the controversy over the murder of local man Robert McCartney in January.

However, a Sinn Féin 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 said.

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 Féin 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 Féin 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 Féin/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,” he declared.

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