Parties lack trust to decide on Ulster polls

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The Independent Online
FIERCE arguments can be expected between tomorrow and next Sunday as the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland political parties haggle over the type of election which might revive the Irish peace process.

Sinn Fein can contribute, although only through contacts with senior officials rather than ministers, but even without them, the lack of trust among the others involved makes an agreed outcome unlikely. John Major has said that if they cannot decide for themselves, he will decide for them.

Differences over an election focus on the system used to stage it and the outcome it would produce. At one end of the spectrum stands the blueprint produced by the Ulster Unionist party. This suggests that 90 people would be elected by proportional representation from Northern Ireland's 18 Westminister constituencies.

They would come together in an elected body which would choose a chairman and set up a system of committees which would report back to plenary sessions. The nationalists have two main objections to this. First, they say that the suggested electoral system has been chosen to maximise the Ulster Unionist vote, and second, they believe the elected body could be expected to take on a life of its own rather than leading speedily to all-party negotiations.

According to a senior nationalist: "This idea is all about control - the elected body and the committees would have Unionist majorities. It's not really about negotiation, it's a ritual affirmation of the Unionist majority, the electoral equivalent of an Orange walk."

The alternative put forward by John Hume's SDLP features a radically different electoral system and in effect no elected body at all. Instead of 18 constituencies there would be only one, with voters choosing parties rather than individual candidates. After the election, parties would move immediately to round-table negotiations rather than setting up an elected body.

Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader, differs from Mr Hume in that he favours an elected body which would have 50 members, but he too favours having a single constituency.

Ulster Unionist sources object that the SDLP idea amounts to "a glorified opinion poll" which would not give the individual candidates a mandate to negotiate. They also point to the fact that in European elections, in which the whole of Northern Ireland is treated as one constituency, Mr Hume and Mr Paisley collect many more votes than usual - so much so that they actually overtake those cast for the UUP.

In the 1993 council elections, for example, the Ulster Unionists won 29.3 per cent of the vote, while in last year's European election they won only 23.8 per cent. The Democratic Unionists, by contrast, jumped from 17.3 per cent in 1993 to 29.2 per cent last year, and the SDLP went from 21.9 to 28.9 per cent.

The Irish government is very much against the Trimble model, while London appears to have no settled preference and would endorse any agreement reached among the parties.

Between the Trimble and Hume positions many variations are possible. A number of models are in use throughout the world, and it may be argued that the present unique situation may well require the creation of some new system.

Any system which emerges will not be on the Westminster "first-past-the- post" model, so that questions of vote-splitting and electoral pacts should not arise. Sinn Fein has established, in 14 years of contesting elections, that it can rely on between 10 and 13 per cent of the total vote, which amounts to roughly one third of the nationalist vote.

In devising a new system Mr Major is likely to opt for something which would ensure that the two loyalist fringe parties, the Ulster Democratic and Progressive Unionist parties, would have a seat at the negotiating table. This is for two reasons: first, because these fledgeling groupings speak for the loyalist paramilitary groups, and second, because their strikingly moderate approach has found favour with both London and Dublin.