Sinn Fein rolls in to the polls with money and men

David McKittrick follows the election trail in west Belfast
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The Independent Online
If manpower and methodical organisation are the keys to success in elections, then in west Belfast at least Sinn Fein are set to do well in yesterday's poll in Northern Ireland.

Outside polling stations in the republican heartlands of Ballymurphy and Springfield sat little caravans containing two or three Sinn Fein workers. Many voters made their way to them before going into the polling stations, standing in a queue to hand in their voting cards.

Inside the caravans Sinn Fein workers had large pieces of cardboard with voting registers sellotaped to them, street by street. As the people handed in their cards, their addresses were found in Glenalina Park, Britton's Parade and Ballymurphy Crescent, and carefully underlined. Other mysterious marks were added with a green highlighter.

The caravans, festooned with posters, pictures of Gerry Adams and tricolour flags, provided a splash of colour on a dull, wet day. But security precautions were in evidence too: the registration numbers were covered up with black bin-bags.

Up in Andersonstown came the media event of the day as Gerry Adams arrived to cast his vote at Holy Child primary school. Locals craned their necks for a glimpse, but he was engulfed in a scrum of American, European and Japanese camera crews. If he said anything of significance in the scrum he said it to America, Europe and Japan, not to Belfast.

West Belfast SDLP MP Dr Joe Hendron accused the republican party of using forged medical cards to steal votes. Belfast's electoral office said they awaited his evidence.

Across the peaceline in Protestant Ballygomartin, a middle-aged woman emerged from Forth River primary school complaining of the long list of Unionist parties on the ballot paper. "Talk about confusing in there," she said, shaking her head. "Progressive Unionists, Ulster Unionists and all the rest - I knew beforehand who I wanted to vote for but still it was confusing."

Here there are no caravans and fewer workers. There are two men from the new Ulster Democratic Party dressed, oddly enough, in identical dark green double-breasted suits. There is also a small, bouncy woman from the Progressive Unionist Party, which, in the latest journalistic euphemism, is said to be familiar to the thinking of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

She turned out to be Tracey Gould, an executive member of the PUP. "We need your vote to get us round the table," she tells those on their way into the polling station. What makes her think talks would work?

"Because I think the smaller parties like us are more realistic about what we need to do. We need to respect each other's culture - gone are the days of the old Stormont, the Protestant superiority."

Half a mile away in Woodvale, heads turned at another polling station as a car pulled up at the station and out jumped the Rev Eric Smyth, the Paisleyite Lord Mayor of Belfast. He helped out an elderly man and then zoomed off again in another jaunty skirl of pipes.

Some PUP people shook their heads in wonder as they heard of Sinn Fein's level of organisation. "I suppose we'd be organised too if we had a million dollars from America," one woman said ruefully, contemplating her handful of leaflets, damp from the Belfast drizzle.

tThe results of the Northern Ireland elections will be announced today.