After N. Ireland Vote - Where to Meet?

Electing a Northern Ireland assembly to help cement the peace process may be the easy part. The real problems, analysts say, will begin after the votes in this Thursday's election are counted.

That will be when Catholics and Protestants with a wide range of views prepare to take their seats and start work a week later.

Already, there is an argument over where the assembly should convene. In the 1920s, Northern Ireland's parliament sat at Stormont Castle, an imposing building on large grounds east of the capital, Belfast. But Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the mostly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), says that Stormont is "haunted by ghosts of a unionist-dominated era."

"This citadel of former Protestant ascendancy is not adequate to our situation today," Mr. Mallon says. "Let it just sit there on its hill, in splendid isolation, to remind everybody of the mistakes that were made in the past."

But Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) member Jeffrey Donaldson, who sits in the British Parliament, calls Stormont "ideal" for the new assembly. "It is one of the best locations for a parliament in all Europe," he says. "The assembly chamber has just been refurbished, and there will be offices for everybody to work from."

When the peace process was in top gear earlier this year, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, sensing problems ahead, tried to soften Stormont's image by arranging for the pop singer Elton John to hold a concert there.

Now, faced with the dispute about locating the assembly, she has ordered its first sessions to be held in Castle Buildings, an office block where the Belfast peace agreement was concluded April 10. The trouble with Castle Buildings is that it looks like a parking garage and lacks a full-sized debating chamber. Secretary Mowlam has delayed a final decision on where the assembly will meet until September.

As a gesture to Irish nationalists, Mowlam reportedly is planning to remove a statue of Lord Carson, a founder of the Unionist movement in the early 20th century, from outside Stormont.

Another possible difficulty arose last Friday when Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), called for assembly debates to be conducted in both English and Gaelic. The party also will press for an all-Ireland educational body to coordinate the teaching of Gaelic. Sinn Fein has the highest number of Gaelic speakers of any party with candidates for the assembly.

Protestants are about 60 percent of Northern Ireland, and most of them are unionists, who want to remain part of Britain. They are expected to form the assembly's largest bloc. Sources close to UUP leader David Trimble say he expects unionists to win about 60 of the 108 seats. The rest would be divided mainly between the moderate SDLP and the strongly republican Sinn Fein.

But unionists are deeply divided. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the radical Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes the Belfast agreement, expects to win up to 30 seats. And six of the 10 UUP members of the British Parliament failed to support the Belfast agreement. If their opposition is reflected in in the assembly elections, UUP leader Trimble will be short of allies and may have to rely on support from the SDLP and Sinn Fein, who both back the agreement.

An Irish Times poll last week showed the SDLP will challenge the UUP to be the largest party in the assembly: SDLP received 26 percent support, the UUP 27 percent. But Northern Ireland's electoral system, which allows voters to name first- and second-preference candidates, makes the final apportionment of seats by party difficult to forecast.

Prof. Paul Bew, a political analyst at Queen's University in Belfast, foresees "real problems ahead" if the DUP does well. "Dr. Paisley ... is likely to create difficulties when such matters as arms decommissioning and cross-border cooperation between" Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are discussed, he says.

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