Spectre of Paisley casts a shadow over poll

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The Independent Online

The spectre of the Rev Ian Paisley yesterday cast a long shadow over the election campaign in Northern Ireland as his Democratic Unionist Party seemed likely to make advances in Wednesday's poll.

Voters are due to elect a new 108-member Belfast Assembly in the hope of reviving the powersharing administration that has been suspended for the past year.

But with his party fighting a buoyant campaign, most of the other parties fear Mr Paisley may win enough seats to be in a position to block the emergence of a new government. The result could be many months of deadlock.

The Ulster Unionist leader and former first minister, David Trimble, is fighting the election at the head of a deeply divided party. Some of his new assembly members are unlikely to back any efforts by him to go back into government with Sinn Fein.

The republicans appear to have the edge in the campaign over their nationalist rivals, the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein has predicted that his party's representation will rise from 18 seats to at least 23.

The final results of Wednesday's poll are not expected to emerge until Friday, after two days of counting. Close results are expected in many constituencies.

Whatever the result, it is expected to be followed by months of negotiation and bargaining involving the major parties and the British and Irish governments.

As the campaign enters its final days the DUP has been taking fire from the other major parties. Opinion differs on whether a modernising tendency within the DUP, headed by the deputy leader Peter Robinson, is capable of make a deal at some point.

Mr Paisley himself, who is 77, has turned down repeated challenges from Mr Trimble for a televised debate. Although he has been as active as ever on the campaign trail, he has left most of the talking and broadcasting to Mr Robinson and other younger members of his party. During the week DUP members and Mr Trimble clashed in a Belfast street when the DUP turned up outside UUP headquarters. The resulting shouting-match may have rebounded on Mr Trimble, with many UUP supporters regarding it as uncouth and undignified.

Mr Paisley said it was clear the DUP had set the pace and the agenda for the whole election campaign.

The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, declared that only his party could "put a stop to the DUP gallop in key constituencies". He added: "Don't give Ian Paisley the election result we all know he wants so he can declare the Good Friday Agreement dead."

Sinn Fein said: "The old days are gone. The DUP has to be dragged into the 21st century. It is difficult and at times for the DUP a painful process. We are more than up to the challenge of putting manners on the DUP after this election."

The Ulster Unionists, who are anxious that voter apathy could affect their support, launched a billboard campaign declaring that it was "too important to stay at home" on Wednesday. Mr Trimble has accused the DUP of recycling old ideas and of running "the most fraudulent campaign in Ulster's electoral history."

As many as one-third of young people in Northern Ireland may not be able to vote in the coming elections following recent sweeping electoral changes. This follows a complete revision of voting arrangements, with radical new rules for compiling the electoral register.