Reluctant runner dogged by rejection of ceasefire

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Bobby Lavery, councillor and reluctant election candidate, stands at the top of the New Lodge with a small band of determined-looking men ready to brave the steady downpour and canvass for Sinn Fein. The biggest sign locally says: "No return to Stormont rule."

He is a reluctant runner because he regards the election as unnecessary, a stalling tactic by Britain, "an absolute farce". He would have preferred a nationalist boycott, but with election day tomorrow, Sinn Fein has to try hard to show that its support is not on the ebb.

Mr Lavery recounts that on one doorstep, a woman, who was an acquaintance of his family, said she would not vote for Sinn Fein. Asked why, she said simply: "Ceasefire's broke."

So do the majority of people want another cessation? Mr Lavery, whose son and brother were shot dead by loyalists, replies: "It would be silly for anyone to say they don't want a ceasefire. The question I keep getting asked is - 'is there going to be another ceasefire?' I think its one of the silliest questions I ever heard, because nothing is more certain.

"The pertinent question is when. The answer to that lies with the army council of the IRA, and to a greater extent with John Major. This de-commissioning ... first and foremost, the British want surrender. Just like the generals of old when they handed over their sword, they want republicans to show that symbol of defeat.

"There's no way they're going to get that. Unfortunately, John Major is almost totally dependent on Unionist votes, so I don't think you'll see any major movement this side of a British general election."

A brief drive away is a loyalist area where David Ervine and the Progressive Unionist party are trying to do what Sinn Fein did for republicanism by grafting a new political dimension on to loyalist paramilitarism. Doing so means persuading Protestants to switch away from mainstream Unionism: an Ian Paisley poster, in suitably lurid orange, serves a reminder that old voting habits die hard.

Mr Ervine's canvassers gather in a little club decorated with Union flags, pictures of the Queen, and scenes depicting Protestant gallantry in the First World War. They pile into a mini-bus to spread the message. "It's all extremely heartening," says Mr Ervine. "A lot of us are new to knocking on doors, but we're encouraged. Nobody is slamming doors in our faces."

If his party finishes in the top ten, it will be admitted to talks, only to face demands - led by the Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble - for a speedy handover of loyalist weapons. "I've only had one question about de-commissioning," says Mr Ervine. "It was from a man who felt loyalists shouldn't de-commission until the IRA did."

Less than an hour later, on a platform in the town hall in Ballymena - the buckle in the bible belt - Mr Trimble urges his audience to spurn such parties. "We have seen some rather unsavoury people strut across the political stage," he declares. "I hope the electorate cuts them down to size on Thursday."

The Ulster Unionist leader said there would be no poll had it not been for his party, though he admitted that the unusual electoral system was not what he had wanted. Drawing on television's Star Trek for inspiration, he said: "It's the elections, Jim, but not as we know them".

There are signs that Mr Trimble's party is anxious that it will not do as well as originally hoped. The main reason, it seems, is that election warhorse Ian Paisley is tramping the campaign trail for his Democratic Unionists with undimmed energy and gusto, despite turning 70 last month.

Outside the town hall, a jet-black jeep pounds the Ballymena streets, loudspeaker blaring. The driver - Paisley's son Ian Jnr - already knows that fewer than 50 people were at the meeting and he stops to deliver a snappy seminar on how to get Unionist votes.

"Trimble fails to clarify his positions, whether it's on social issues or constitutional policy.That makes it very difficult for them to come across with a consistent message.

"I think the electorate's sophisticated, but I don't think they're sophisticated to the extent that they can appreciate all the minutiae and innuendo."