Breakthrough for Sinn Fein on both sides of the border

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Sinn Fein were the most conspicuous winners in both parts of Ireland yesterday, taking the party's first-ever European seats in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein were the most conspicuous winners in both parts of Ireland yesterday, taking the party's first-ever European seats in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

Its performance was accompanied by success in Belfast for the Democratic Unionist Party, which topped the poll even though its charismatic leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, did not stand in the contest.

These results confirm that efforts to restore devolution in Belfast, which will begin later this week, will only succeed if the DUP and the republicans can strike a deal together.

The third Northern Ireland seat last night went to Jim Nicholson of David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party. The fact that the DUP took almost twice as many votes as the UUP emphasised the new DUP ascendancy within unionism.

The new Sinn Fein MEPs are Bairbre de Brun in the north and Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin.

In the south, the main features were Sinn Fein's performance, which some comment- ators regard as a breakthrough into mainstream southern politics, and the punishment meted out by voters to Fianna Fail, the main governing party.

Fianna Fail took a hammering both in Europe and in the simultaneous council elections, with commentators suggesting that voters regarded the government as arrogant.

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, conceded that the election was a serious rebuff to his government, saying his party took no comfort from the results. There would be a major cabinet re-shuffle in September, he announced.

The result was a boost for Fine Gael, the major opposition party, which has been struggling for several years and which yesterday claimed it had turned a corner. The advances it has made in these elections mean it can argue that it is becoming a credible leader of an alternative coalition government.

Mr Ahern's government did, however, score a comfortable victory in last week's referendum on Irish citizenship, with a 79 per cent vote in favour of his government's call for new restrictions. Citizenship will now only be granted to babies with at least one parent who has lived in Ireland for at least three of the last four years.

In Scotland, a higher than expected turnout maintained the status quo for the three main parties in the European election as Labour, the Tories and the Scottish National Party each emerged with two seats.

As the final results were announced yesterday it appeared that the biggest surprise of the campaign was the turnout - 30.7 per cent, or 6 per cent higher than in 1999, and far higher than predicted.

The final seat in the seven allocated to Scotland was won by the Liberal Democrats, who achieved 13.06 per cent of the ballot, although the UK Independence Party staged a credible performance to come from nowhere in 1999 to 6.68 per cent of the votes - a whisker behind the Greens at 6.75 per cent.

The Tories achieved a respectable 17.7 per cent while Labour won 26.33 per cent and the Scottish Socialist Party obtained 5.2 per cent.

Although the Scottish Nationalists emerged with 19.61 per cent of the vote and held on to two seats, the result was yesterday seen as a failure of the party leadership to overtake Labour.

Critics of the SNP leader, John Swinney, called it a disaster for his credibility as he "failed miserably" to beat Labour's share of the vote - eventually coming in nearly 7 per cent behind.

At the 1999 European elections they had come less than 2 per cent behind Labour - Labour with under 29 per cent of the votes and the SNP with more than 27 per cent.

"We achieved our major objective which was to hold our two-seat position," said Mr Swinney, in his defence.

Scotland's MEPs are now David Martin and Catherine Stihler for Labour; Ian Hudghton and Alyn Smith for the SNP; Struan Stevenson and John Purvis for the Tories, and Elspeth Attwooll for the Liberal Democrats.