The European Elections: Hume nearly overtakes Paisley

IN Northern Ireland, the European vote brought a resounding success for John Hume, the SDLP leader, which he presented as an endorsement of his efforts to bring an end to IRA violence.

The Rev Ian Paisley topped the poll for the fourth time in succession, but Mr Hume's vote rose so sharply he almost overtook the Democratic Unionist Party leader. The third successful candidate, who was elected on the second count under the system of proportional representation, was Jim Nicholson of the Ulster Unionist Party. This means that there is no change in Northern Ireland's three representatives in the Strasbourg parliament.

The Sinn Fein vote increased slightly, its three candidates polling 55,000 votes, compared with 49,000 in 1989. But this was overshadowed by Mr Hume's vote, which went up from 136,000 to almost 162,000. He increased his party's share of the nationalist vote from 65 per cent in last year's council elections to 75 per cent - his party's best-ever performance and one which demonstrated that the Hume-Adams initiative has widespread support among Catholics and nationalists.

On the Unionist side, Mr Paisley's vote dropped less than 1 per cent. He had sought to turn the campaign into a referendum on the Downing Street declaration, which he described as 'a love letter from John Major to Gerry Adams'. This brought him few new voters, while the rival Ulster Unionist Party's much more subdued campaign brought in its regular support.

The results will bring little cheer to the Government, which is anxious to restart political talks. Mr Paisley's son, Ian, said yesterday: 'No round- table talks. We're out of that process.' The Government can only hope the DUP will change its mind and join in the discussions later. The Ulster Unionists, however, have a track record of avoiding any risky political deals while Mr Paisley remains strong and breathing down their necks, so the prospects are not promising.

The moderate Alliance party fared badly, dropping about 5,000 votes since 1989. The Northern Ireland Conservatives did even worse, plummeting from 25,000 to 5,000 and virtually disappearing off the political map.

The next big development on the political agenda is the definitive Sinn Fein response to the Downing Street declaration. An important speech is scheduled to be made next weekend at a traditional anniversary at Bodenstown, but Sinn Fein sources say the final response will be given some time after that.