Election `97: Sinn Fein wins two seats

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Sinn Fein and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists emerged as victors in Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies, with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness both winning seats and the Ulster Unionists adding one to their tally.

It was a bad day for John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), each of which dropped a seat.

Most of the political speculation arising from the results centred on the possibility of a renewed peace process, and on whether the two Sinn Fein gains made a new cessation of IRA violence more likely. Both Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness claimed their victories represented votes for peace.

Within the nationalist community, Sinn Fein clearly fared better in its contest with the SDLP, as the republicans went from no seats to two and the SDLP slipped from four to three.

The republican surge appeared to be greeted with no great alarm in either London or Dublin, however, since Sinn Fein has for some time seemed favourites to take West Belfast and Mid-Ulster and since in both cases specific local factors played a large part in the results.

Sinn Fein MPs are prohibited by their party constitution from taking Commons seats, but the republicans have already made it clear that they have plans to open an office in London and intend to use their parliamentary status to the fullest possible extent without actually taking their seats.

The success of Mr Adams in West Belfast meant the Sinn Fein president recaptured a seat he had held between 1983 and 1992. The SDLP gained more Protestant votes than previously, but Mr Adams's vote rose sharply, partly as a result of boundary changes.

In Ulster Mid, Martin McGuinness won as a result of a concerted nationalist effort to dislodge the Rev William McCrea of the DUP. Mr McCrea suffered from boundary changes while the Sinn Fein candidate benefited from tactical voting by perhaps 6,000 SDLP supporters. By almost universal consent, however, the switch came about because voters opted for the nationalist candidate most likely to topple Mr McCrea.

The Ulster Unionists benefited from a split nationalist vote in the only new seat, West Tyrone, where in a particularly hard-fought contest the SDLP and Sinn Fein tied with 14,000 each, allowing William Thompson to take the seat with 16,000. This success looks likely to strengthen David Trimble's hand in his battle within Unionism with the Rev Ian Paisley. The Ulster Unionist leader said that during the election his party had faced a level of personal vituperation that he had not experienced in decades.

Martin McGuinness said after his election that he was "totally in favour of dialogue, talks, negotiations and a search for a peace settlement in this country". He said the election sent a message to the British and Irish governments that a determined effort was needed to rebuild a peace process, adding: "We in Sinn Fein will do all in our power to assist in the reconstruction of a new peace process."