Sinn Fein boosted by surge in votes

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Sinn Fein was the major benefactor yesterday from a general rise in the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland's local council elections, leaving Unionists in danger of losing overall control of Belfast city council.

Patterns emerging from the first day of counting confirmed the general election trend of a significantly increased nationalist turnout in many of the 26 council areas.

While counting will not be concluded until later today, Sinn Fein seemed to have sustained the surge which earlier this month saw it capturing 16 per cent of the vote. Overall, there was little sign of any easing of the extreme polarisation which has marked Northern Ireland society and political life.

John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party accused Sinn Fein of vote- stealing in Londonderry in particular, One councillor, Mark Durkan, declared: "What we're seeing here is a surge that's coming through by manipulation and proxy votes on a wholesale scale." This was denied by Sinn Fein.

From the Unionist side came complaints that the whirlwind tour of trouble spots undertaken on polling day by Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, had given a boost to nationalist council candidates who were pictured with her.

Ulster Unionist Party MP Ken Maginnis accused her of "unforgivable direct interference" in the election, adding: "If there has been a deliberate infringement of the electoral system then there may be grounds for asking that the whole process be declared null and void."

Jim Rodgers, a UUP councillor, lamented the comparatively poor Protestant turnout, claiming: "People on the Unionist side of our community are absolutely demoralised.

"They tell us on the doorsteps that they are tired [of] voting, that the only people the Government pays attention to are the terrorists."

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