IRA seeks votes in south -- but probably in vain

The IRA is trying to turn next week's general election campaign in the Irish Republic into a bitter contest over Northern Ireland. The Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army, which has fought a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland over the past 12 years, is fielding nine candidates in the election south of the border.

Four of them are men currently on hunger strike in the Maze Prison near Belfast.

They are hoping to win seats in the Irish parliament, the Dail, to emulate the achievement of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who died last May 5 after being elected to the British Parliament from a Northern Ireland constituency.

But it is unlikely that the IRA and their supporters will be equally successful south of the border.

It is widely accepted that the circumstances of Mr. Sand's election were unique. The voters who elected him had been faced with a clear choice of either electing a Protestant supporter of continued British rule in Ulster or voting for Mr. Sands and his movement's rejection of British rule. The IRA's stated objective is to unite Ireland under Irish rule from Dublin.

Most observers say the election was purely a sectarian contest.

But in next week's Irish general election there will be no sectarian divide. The less than 5 percent Protestant community in the Irish Republic does not support any particular political party, spreading votes among the ruling Fianna Fail Party, led by Charles J. Haughey, and the opposition Fine Gael Party led by Garret Fitzgerald.

The IRA's candidates will be fighting for seats in areas which are traditionally Republican but where Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have always attracted overwhelming support for their candidates and have generally managed to beat off extremist challenges.

In recent days Mr. Haughey has been pushed and shoved on a campaign through those areas. Demonstrators in support of candidates have been vocal, but small in number. Mr. Haughey's most uncomfortable moment came when a heckler threw an egg that hit his head.

Furious, Mr. Haughey said he would not be intimidated from canvassing every parish in the land, recalling that his father had fought for the independence of the country and the right of free expression. The IRA has also been unable to resolve bitter internal differences before deciding to field a candidate. One section on the movement wanted to put up nationally known figures such as Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, once a young Westminster member of Parliament herself, who this January was wounded by terrorists at her home in Ulster.

The decision to put up four hunger strikers was taken by the IRA to discourage other Republicans from standing. But in at least one constituency there will be other extremists -- all looking for a pro-IRA vote.

The result is likely to be a dilution of their effort resulting in none of the IRA men getting elected. But their intervention has captured the media's attention in what has so far been a dull election campaign over economic issues.

Canvassers for the major parties say hardly anyone raises the hunger strike issue on the doorsteps of Dublin or the big cities.

Says Fine Gael leader Garret Fitzgerald: "We are finding people are much more concerned about Ireland's inflation, rising unemployment, and our proposals to alter the tax system.

"Northern Ireland is not an issue between us and Fianna Fail and I'm glad that is the case. It should not detract us away from the serious economic state of the country."

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