Northern Ireland Voters Expected to Cross Religious Lines

Those who want the new Assembly to work face those who don't in an election next week.

Peter Jones has long followed in his late father's footsteps - both men made their mark in the legal profession in Northern Ireland while maintaining a deep interest in politics. Peter's father, E.W. Jones, was a well-known Protestant politician in Northern Ireland and attorney general to the governments in the 1960s that clung steadfastly to union with Britain.

But in one significant respect the son has diverged from the father: Peter is actively supporting the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which advocates joining the Irish Republic, in elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly next week.

How would his father, now deceased, have reacted? "He wouldn't have been too pleased," the younger Mr. Jones says, "but then, we're different."

Some 280 hopefuls are running to fill 108 seats in the new Assembly. As voters in Northern Ireland prepared to go to the polls June 25, many differences from previous elections are emerging.

Traditionally, Protestants have voted for unionist parties that seek to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, while Catholics gave their preference to nationalist parties working to create unity with the Irish Republic.

But since voters last month approved a referendum on the Belfast peace agreement on the future of Northern Ireland, the old certainties are being shaken.

Voters next week are expected to cross lines and vote for candidates based on their stance on the agreement. Tommy McCourt, a community worker in Londonderry (called Derry in the Irish Republic), Northern Ireland, says, "The general feeling is that everyone is hoping that the majority of those elected won't work to wreck" the new Assembly.

Jones, as a "Protestant nationalist," wants the Assembly to work. The break with his family's long unionist legacy came for him when the government decides to locate Northern Ireland's second university in the Protestant town of Coleraine rather than Catholic-dominated Londonderry. "Why shouldn't Protestant people come into the SDLP?" he asks, "People need to change their mind-set. If I can contribute something to that, then that's a good thing."

Jones is a rare political species in Northern Ireland, however. "Catholic unionists" are equally hard to find.

Patricia Campbell is one. She is seeking to break the mold as an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) candidate in North Antrim. She says her religion is of no concern to her Protestant colleagues in the UUP "unlike many of my co-religious, who seem upset that I am a Catholic standing for the UUP and not a nationalist party. I'm honored to have been chosen to go forward into an election campaign that gives us the chance to build a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland."

The race in Ms. Campbell's North Antrim district contains all the varied facets of political life in Northern Ireland. The "Catholic unionist" is battling in what is the heartland of the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Belfast peace agreement.

Also on the ballot is Joe Cahill, a senior figure in the republican movement, who has served a sentence for murder. Mr. Paisley has described him as "the leading terrorist godfather of Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein."

Paisley's party hopes to win enough seats to disrupt the workings of the Assembly. But a poll released yesterday showed public opinion is solidly behind parties like the SDLP and UUP that support the Belfast agreement.

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