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UK Politics

Unionists and Sinn Fein accused of election 'carve-up'

Instead of the political fireworks often generated in Northern Ireland contests, the current campaign has been one of unprecedented dullness – voters will go to the polls tomorrow against predictions of a particularly low turnout.

Even the outside possibility that a republican surge might give Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness enough seats to become First Minister has failed to produce real alarm among Protestant voters.

With major constitutional issues fading into the background, most campaign debate has centred on bread and butter issues which are not usually to the fore in Northern Ireland contests: health and education have been prominent.

The results are expected to consolidate the positions of the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, which have formed a partnership that has come to dominate local politics.

The close relationship that has developed between the two has led to complaints from smaller parties that they have together engineered a "carve-up" of power. During the campaign the big two have carefully avoided clashing with each other, concentrating instead on attacking their opponents.

The Assembly has contributed to a growing sense of stability during its four-year term. But it has also been criticised as cumbersome and slow-moving, leading many of the parties to call for reforms to its structure.

The fact that no supporters of violent republican groups are fighting the election is taken as a recognition of the fact that, with their limited support, they would attract a humiliatingly small number of votes.

One of the few incidents of note during the campaign came several days ago when the First Minister, Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionists, over-balanced and toppled into his fish pond.

Well known as an enthusiast for koi carp, as he called for help, he said his family "either chortled and convulsed, or searched for insurance policies". He added: "Responses about slippery slopes, 'carping' on about issues and expressions of concern about my fish do not meet my need for sympathy."