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Local Elections Take Pulse of Northern Ireland

May 15, 1989 GMT

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Northern Ireland’s local elections Wednesday may help measure how much the gunmen, both Catholic and Protestant, have hurt their political allies.

No real power is at stake, but Sinn Fein officials concede they have been damaged by the civilian deaths inflicted by the Irish Republican Army, while the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party has been embarrassed by the arrest of former allies who allegedly were seeking a South African arms connection.

Roads, schools and housing figure in the race for 566 seats on 26 councils. But passions seldom stray far from the core conflict between Protestants who favor British rule and Catholics who want a united Ireland.

″Hatred is mostly what motivates politics,″ says Paul Bew, a professor of political science at Queen’s University in Belfast. ″It is the Catholic candidate that brings out the Protestant vote, and the Protestant vote that brings out the Catholic.″

Thus elections in Northern Ireland, with roughly 900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics, often are dismissed as sectarian headcounts, and usually less than 1 percent of the vote crosses religious lines.

Yet in the district of Fermanagh, there has been some talk of limited vote- trading between Catholic members of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and Protestants of the Official Unionist Party.

″Enough of it may happen to affect the situation,″ says John O’Kane of the SDLP in Fermanagh.

In local elections in 1985, Sinn Fein took 11.8 percent of the vote while the larger, anti-violence SDLP polled 17.8 percent. Among Catholics, the SDLP usually outpolls Sinn Fein 2-1.

Sinn Fein’s electoral strength was growing, Bew said, until a string of IRA atrocities began with a bomb that killed 11 Protestants at Enniskillen on Nov. 8, 1987.

Despite an appeal by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to the IRA to be ″careful and careful again,″ the incidents continued. In the last, on April 12, the IRA tried to blow up a police barracks in the heavily Catholic border town of Warrenpoint. The blast killed a 19-year-old Catholic woman and damaged one in six houses.

The Democratic Unionists suffered a further embarrassment on April 24 when three members of the Ulster Resistance Movement were arrested in Paris where they allegedly were seeking to swap a stolen model of a Blowpipe missile for South African arms.


Paisley and the DUP’s deputy leader, Peter Robinson, had appeared at Ulster Resistance rallies, but Paisley said those links had since been severed.

Since October, the British government has banned broadcast appearances by Sinn Fein members, and has compelled all candidates to take an oath that they do not support violence. The broadcast ban is waived during the election campaign.

Sinn Fein candidates took the oath but the party has not renounced the strategy of using both violence and the electoral process to further its goal of ridding Northern Ireland of British rule.

Despite that combination of official crackdown and IRA bungling, ″we hope and expect to hold our vote,″ said Sinn Fein spokesman Richard McAuley.

″Sinn Fein has a hard core of ... votes which aren’t going to go away,″ said Sidney Elliott, a political scientist at Queen’s University. Opinion surveys have found that Sinn Fein attracts its heaviest support from the young and the unemployed, while the SDLP is more middle-class.

″There really isn’t much of a floating vote between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, whereas government policy is predicated on the assumption that there is,″ says Bew. Sinn Fein’s problem ″is their own mistakes, not ... any strategy of government to ameliorate conditions.″

The DUP’s vote share fell from 24.3 percent in 1985 to 11.7 percent in 1987, while the more moderate Official Unionists rose from 29.5 to 37.8 percent.

Both parties demand that Sinn Fein, like the IRA, be outlawed, and they want tighter security along the border with the Irish Republic. The DUP proposes ″hot pursuit″ of the IRA across the frontier.

The DUP has been hurt by defections of council members who want an even tougher line.