Peace accord at stake in Northern Irish vote Wednesday

As Northern Ireland goes to the polls Wednesday, one crucial question is whether voters will remain split across the Catholic/Protestant sectarian divide, or whether some will cross over to support a broader goal: rescuing the peace process.

For generations, it would have been laughable to think that Protestants who support parties favoring continued union with Britain might vote for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which is mainly Catholic and advocates one united, independent Ireland.

Conversely, the concept of Catholics voting for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) would have been risible.

But, nearly 10 years since the Catholic paramilitary, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the main Protestant paramilitaries called their cease-fires, some here wonder if the political lines may be about to start blurring.

The ballot is to elect a national assembly, in which power is shared between Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists. The assembly, centerpiece of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, was suspended by Britain in October 2002 over concerns that the IRA had not sufficiently decommissioned weapons and was spying on the government through its political arm, Sinn Fein.

The effort to revive power-sharing - and thus the peace agreement itself - could be scuttled if hardliners on both sides of the sectarian divide make gains at the expense of moderates.

Led by fiery preacher Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - one of the two main Protestant parties - wants to scrap the accord and renegotiate it. The larger UUP, however, is seen as generally supportive of the accord.

The two main pro-united Ireland parties - the SDLP and Sinn Fein, support the peace agreement - but without a strong UUP as their partners in government, the 1998 accord is doomed.

The issue, then, is whether pro-Agreement Catholic voters will cross sectarian lines to give their second preferences to the UUP - as a way of freezing out the DUP and thus salvaging the accord.

In the complex balloting system used in Northern Ireland, where each voter is asked to mark candidates in order of preference, such vote transfers will be crucial.

Moderate leaders have a difficult line to navigate: to encourage voters who support the accord without appearing weak to rivals. UUP leader David Trimble has been wary of advising supporters to cross over and vote for the SDLP, seen as the more moderate voice of Irish nationalism.

The SDLP and Sinn Fein, however, have not been so reticent, openly advising their supporters to give transfer votes to pro-Agreement UUP candidates. But, in the privacy of the polling booth, will the advice be heeded?

"The evidence is that they never done it in the past, but there's greater pressure on this occasion to do so," says Paul Arthur, professor of politics at the University of Ulster. "When it comes to who gets those final seats, it will make a real difference. There is therefore more likelihood they will cross over for the first time, because it's been put to them that the Agreement's on the line."

In the other direction, will any unionist votes go to the SDLP or Sinn Fein? Party president Gerry Adams predicts that a small but significant number of unionists will give his party a preference. Most observers believe that number will be tiny.

But Danny Morrison, former Sinn Fein director of publicity, now a commentator, says, "There are scores of thousands of unionist voters who are realists, who understand that the Good Friday Agreement is a historical compromise. While to various degrees they might remain suspicious of Sinn Fein, many of them know that we are genuinely trying to politically resolve the issues that fueled the conflict."

The election is in many ways a duel for primacy between the two main Protestant parties. The campaign, generally quiet, came alive when Mr. Paisley and associates went to UUP headquarters in their "Battle Bus." In what was later dubbed "the fuss at the bus," UUP leader Trimble emerged from the building and a 10-minute verbal battle ensued as television cameras rolled.

Turnout for Wednesday's election will be crucial. Many observers say Trimble can win only if he brings out affluent, middle-class Protestants who broadly back the peace accord but have tended not to vote.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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