N. Ireland's local elections could test national issues

Today's elections in Northern Ireland -- with more than 1,000 candidates running for offices -- are local affairs. But the major question is the state of the political parties in the battle over unification with the Irish Republic and the continuing link with the rest of Great Britain. The outcome is regarded as crucial at a time when preparations are being made for British-Irish summit talks.

The issues in the elections range from women's rights to unemployment. But essentially it is an old fashioned Northern Ireland election measuring the strength of Protestant candidates against those who are Roman Catholics.

As a rough rule of thumb, Northern Ireland's political parties tend to split into a Catholic side, generally favoring unification, and a Protestant side, usually supporting a continued relationship with Great Britain.

But there are divisions within the major parties themselves: On the Protestant side there is a contest between the Official Unionist Party (OUP), and the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by the outspoken Ian Paisley. The DUP has made significant gains in the last 15 years, largely due to the leadership of Mr. Paisley who is bitterly opposed to Irish unity and to what he alleges to be the political power of the Catholic Church. Analysts feel, however, that the OUP will stay in front.

A particularly crucial contest will take place on the Catholic side between the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), and the Provisional Sinn Fein -- the political wing of the IRA. Sinn Fein has worked hard to gain votes on social issues, though the party refuses to condemn IRA violence. The entry of Sinn Fein into its first local council elections is a new development. The party has previously shown in general elections that it has a sizeable following.

The SDLP is led by the eloquent John Hume who totally rejects violence and backs a united Ireland through peaceful means. The SDLP also has a solid grass-roots base but it will be unable to prevent seats going to Sinn Fein in some Catholic areas.

In the midst of this polarization, the moderate Alliance Party is fielding candidates to woo the vote of a limited number middle-of-the-roaders. Party leader John Cushnahan is confident that the Alliance will increase its share of the vote. He says, ``We are in good shape and moral is high.''

[One in three Catholics in Northern Ireland would like to see the troubled province remain a part of Britain, according to a BBC poll.]

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