Ulster casts a vote for a peaceful future

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NORTHERN IRELAND electors yesterday cast vital votes for candidates for the new Belfast assembly which is supposed to help transform the face of politics and to secure a more peaceful future.

In spite of an exceptionally low-key campaign the turnout appeared to be high, particularly in western areas where voters have traditionally shown great determination to get to the polls.

Counting starts this morning, with results expected to become known from early afternoon onwards. Counting may go into a second day, given that the proportional representation system of voting means a longer tallying process than the Westminster first-past-the-post method.

Heavy mid-afternoon rain in Belfast deterred some voters, but the usual post-teatime rush saw steady streams of voters trooping to the 1,228 polling stations.

In Protestant east Belfast some polling stations were heavily bedecked with multi-coloured election posters, reflecting the keen contest for votes among different shades of Unionist parties in the area.

Across in west Belfast, meanwhile, posters and other decorations exhorting support for Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein candidates dominated most of the stations. Many of the district's London-style black taxis were pressed into service transporting Sinn Fein supporters. Almost 300 candidates are seeking the 108 assembly seats, six of which will come from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies. The assembly is expected to meet for the first time on Wednesday of next week to elect a Speaker. Its timetable after that is unclear.

New last-minute arrangements were put in place in the County Armagh village of Newtownhamilton, whose centre was badly damaged by an INLA car-bomb attack on Wednesday. The local community centre, where voting was to have taken place, was destroyed in the blast. In its place a school a quarter of a mile away was used instead.

In the Dail, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, appealed for a big turn-out.

He aid: "Today is another step on the road to democracy that will give new institutions, that will break away from direct rule for the first time in more than a quarter of a century."

The Tories have made a private offer to Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, to change the Government's Bill to allow the release of prisoners, writes Colin Brown.

Their amendment would harden the Bill by requiring the Secretary of State to "take into account" terrorist activity before releasing prisoners. She would have to make sure their organisations were cooperating with the arms decommissioning body. The Tories, who faced criticism after voting against the third reading of the Bill in the Commons, are seeking a consensus for their change. But they can use their strength in the Lords to defeat the Government, if it rejects their move to reinforce the linking of releases with decommissioning of weapons.