Paisley is shrinking and so is his support

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IAN PAISLEY, the greatest vote-getter Northern Ireland has ever known, cruised through the shoppers at Lisburn market like a latter-day Old Testament patriarch, a larger-than-life figure who speaks directly to the soul of the Ulster Protestant.

The traders at the little stalls were selling Manchester United carpets, car shampoo, mint Aero eggs, cooking apples, French polish, best Manx kippers and socks featuring South Park cartoon characters. Ian Paisley, too, offered value and variety, setting out the familiar political stall so popular with unionist voters. His winning formula is to put the fear of God into them, demand they do their tribal duty, and then to give them a laugh.

Thus the tape on his car loudspeaker told them they were the victims of "betrayal and treachery" and declared he was the only unionist who could top the poll. While those messages were being broadcast over and over, he was in the midst of the shoppers, making them chuckle and flirting with the older women.

"Don't forget me love, don't forget me on the 10th," he told one old dear. "I will not indeed," she replied. Another told him: "You're the only one that does anything for us." And he repeated his old formulation which often gets him a laugh: "Remember my wife's husband when you vote."

The old magic is still there but the Big Man, as he is known, is 73 and not quite as big as he was. He was in hospital recently and has lost weight: the huge frame has shrunk somewhat, and he is not as burly as before. The question to be answered on 10 June is whether his share of the vote will shrink too.

In every European election for two decades he has topped the poll which elects Northern Ireland's three Strasbourg representatives. SDLP leader, John Hume, has always come second, with the third seat invariably going to David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party.

But the sectarian demography of the numbers game in Northern Ireland is changing dramatically, and there is an expectation that the old mould is about to be broken. There are now a lot more Catholics and nationalists than there used to be, and they tend to be keen voters. There are fewer Protestants around, and many of them tend not to vote.

There is thus a possibility that John Hume will overtake Ian Paisley to finish first; there is also an outside chance that Sinn Fein could overtake the Ulster Unionists and snatch the third seat. The first possibility would be confirmation of a sea-change in the fundamental political arithmetic; the second would be a real jolt to the system. There are many variables in all this. Unionism is once more fragmented, with four candidates in the field. What is worse, from David Trimble's point of view, is that his own party is deeply and publicly divided.

His candidate, Jim Nicholson, has been in politics for many years and was always regarded as being a solid if unexciting personality: one observer unkindly called him a well-known nonentity. Recently, however, he suddenly became far too exciting for his party's liking when he admitting having a four-year affair with a married woman.

He has been retained as the candidate but, bizarrely, party deputy leader, John Taylor, has publicly called on him to step down and refused to say whether he will be voting for him. The party is deeply worried that its traditional supporters, many of whom are conservative and religious people, will switch their vote or simply stay home on polling day.

Until a few days ago, it seemed that unionism's difficulty was to be republicanism's opportunity, with Sinn Fein successfully hammering home the theme that unionist disarray meant its candidate, Mitchel McLaughlin, had become eminently electable.

But that was before the saga of the disappeared moved to centre-stage, showing up the republican movement in the worst possible light. The anguish of the families during the protracted search operations for IRA victims of the Seventies has been a public relations nightmare for the IRA and Sinn Fein.

The fact that the digging will probably be going on right up until polling day and beyond provides an appalling vista for Sinn Fein. It had hoped for a significant increase in its vote, but the pathetic spectacle of the waiting families makes this less likely. Thus all the major players, apart from John Hume, have something to fear from this contest.

Ian Paisley could be toppled from the top of the poll; David Trimble's leadership would be undermined by the loss of its traditional European seat; and Sinn Fein could be punished by the voters sickened by the sight of the results of the IRA's handiwork.