Hard-liners aim for big gains in Northern Ireland elections

For Northern Ireland's moderate parties, there just aren't enough voters like south Belfast's Robert Henderson.

"I'm worried that we're going backward, that we could end up with a more divided society," Mr. Henderson says. "If Sinn Fein and the DUP [Democratic Unionists] form a government, that would be awful. We would be putting extremists in power."

Henderson plans to vote for the centrist Ulster Unionists in Thursday's election for the UK Parliament. But experts say his vote will be overwhelmed by a tide of support for Northern Ireland's hard-line parties.

If the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein emerge as dominant, analysts say, the peace process could go into a deep freeze.

Paramilitaries are not threatening to return to war, but old wounds have been opened throughout the campaign.

The hard-line Democratic Unionists, who strongly oppose any weakening of Northern Ireland's union with Britain, have been campaigning on an anti-Sinn Fein platform, vowing not to govern with a party they say is linked to terrorists.

Led by fiery preacher Ian Paisley, the party hopes for a massive turnout of loyalists who support the province's union with Britain and are incensed that the Irish Republican Army (IRA), allied with Sinn Fein, has not disbanded. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated an aim of Democratic Unionists' supporters.]

The Democratic Unionists have painted the moderate Ulster Unionists as soft on Sinn Fein and the IRA. A confident Mr. Paisley recently predicted his party, which has six seats in Parliament, would take all five of the Ulster Unionists' seats.

A loss by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dave Trimble, the face of moderate unionism for a decade, would devastate the Ulster Unionists, leaving the 100-year-old party on the brink of oblivion.

Reg Empey, the party's deputy leader and a parliamentary candidate, says Northern Ireland could become a place with "one side or the other dominating its own community without stretching a hand out to the other. You'll get two rigid groups and you'll just get stalemate."

The Ulster Unionists sold the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal as the way to get the IRA to decommission its weapons. Because that didn't happen, they are paying the price, says Democratic Unionist Nigel Dodds, a member of Parliament.

The agreement, which the Democratic Unionists opposed, ended with the suspension of Northern Ireland's provincial government in October 2002.

"The failed policies of David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists resulted in a host of concessions to the IRA," Mr. Dodds says. "We know where we stand, and we stand by our election pledges."

Sinn Fein has retained its support, polls indicate, despite intense criticism in the wake of a $50 million bank raid and the unsolved murder of a Belfast Catholic outside a pub, both linked to the IRA.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams might have won over moderate Catholics with his unprecedented call last month for the IRA to disband, analysts say. It's the kind of savvy move that has prevented the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) from gaining ground.

"Irish nationalists see Sinn Fein as the party that can deliver the most to them," says Paul Dixon, a professor of politics at the University of Ulster. "Plenty of people are still willing to trust Adams."

While nationalists see Sinn Fein as a growing, powerful party, he explains, they see SDLP as the aging party of the "previous generation."

Not everyone expects the election will result in stalemate. Dismissing Paisley's refusal to collaborate as "campaign rhetoric," Sinn Fein general secretary Mitchel McLaughlin says his party is ready to negotiate with the Democratic Unionists.

Only the lack of photographs to document IRA weapons decommissioning kept the Democratic Unionists from agreeing to a new accord in talks that ended in December, he says.

"We were within a Polaroid of an historic agreement with the DUP, and we will pick up where we left off in December," he says. Others remain wary. SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell warns against a total takeover by the hard-line parties.

"People fear that if Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party totally dominate, they will carve out their own pieces and won't work with each other," he says. "They will balkanize our communities."

Optimists point out that Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists have co-opted enough of their moderate rivals' policies to grab centrist voters. And a new agreement, if it is reached, could have a better chance of succeeding than the Good Friday Agreement did because Ulster's extremes would be well represented in negotiations, Dixon says.

"It's the Nixon goes to China theory," Dixon adds, referring to President Nixon's historic 1972 visit to Communist China. "Hard-liners can always deliver their community, because there is no one outflanking them."

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