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European Elections: Unionists spurn deal

IN NORTHERN Ireland, the European election result reflected a drop in Protestant support for the Good Friday Agreement.

The three sitting MEPs were re-elected, with the Rev Ian Paisley staving off a challenge from the SDLP leader John Hume to retain his traditional poll-topping position. The electoral rear was brought up by Jim Nicholson, the candidate of David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party. Sinn Fein maintained its strong showing of recent years, giving Mr Nicholson a run for his money.

The British Government and supporters of the Good Friday Agreement will worry about the poll's implications for the accord, which remains at the centre of Northern Ireland's political life. They will take heart from the fact that close to 70 per cent of voters favoured supporters of the agreement.

But while nationalist support remained as strong as ever, 60 per cent of Unionists voted for Mr Paisley and another opponent of the accord. Since in two votes last year the Unionist division of opinion was roughly 50-50, the figures clearly suggest there has been a swing away from the agreement.

Some argued that the result was coloured by Mr Paisley's near-legendary vote-getting abilities. None the less, early analysis suggested the result was a poor outcome for the Ulster Unionists.

The party has been hesitating on the question of sharing power with Sinn Fein, with Mr Trimble having at best a wafer-thin majority in the Belfast assembly. The Government is anxious to clear up the de-commissioning issue by the end of the month, which would then allow the transfer of power to Northern Ireland.

The next few weeks are expected to see intense political activity, as Tony Blair attempts to reconcile the two sides' positions.