BELFAST: Northern Ireland’s electorate began trudging to the polls Wednesday for a make-or-break vote aimed at paving the way for a lasting power-sharing administration between Protestants and Catholics.
The elections to the Northern Irish Assembly are a key step towards restoring devolved government in the long-troubled British province, more than four years after it was suspended and handed back to London amid cross-community mistrust.
But hours before the polls opened at 7:00 am, both communities’ main parties were at each other’s throats and there were fears of apathy among weary voters.
It is the 10th time Northern Ireland’s 1.1 million-strong electorate has been called to vote since the April 1998 peace accord which largely ended 30 bloody years of “the Troubles” between the two communities.
The Democratic Unionists (DUP), a hardline conservative Protestant party which defending Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom, are expected to top the polls.
Their foes Sinn Fein -- a Catholic socialist group favouring integration into the Republic of Ireland, and the political wing of violence-renouncing paramilitaries the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- are tipped to come second.
The script agreed by London and Dublin says the pair are meant to form a semi-autonomous executive by March 26.
But the wrangling on thrashing out a deal seems like it might go to the wire.
“Until we are satisfied that Sinn Fein are democratic political party, we will not be sitting down in government with them,” said DUP MP Gregory Campbell during a BBC television debate late Tuesday.
“Let’s keep turning the screw until we get them where we need them to be. But I don’t see that they can make up the ground between now and March 26.”
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams accused the DUP of blocking the path to a settlement.
“Either we go back to conflict, the blood, the tears we’ve all been through, or we go forward and build a new future for the people of Ireland,” he said.
“I just wish that ordinary Unionist voters would cop on to (realise) what the DUP are playing at.”
Wednesday’s poll is the third to elect the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has barely functioned and has been suspended since 2002, after IRA spy-ring allegations.
News media reminded the electorate that the single transferable vote system was being used and voters needed to mark their ballot papers with their preferences in descending order rather than the usual X.
Polling day received little coverage in the Belfast Telegraph and The Irish News, with both main regional dailies citing a quiet campaign.
There were fears that voter turnout after work could be affected by forecasted showers, plus Celtic’s crucial Champions League football match against AC Milan.
Republican taxi drivers were to call round pubs showing the match and whisk people to the ballot boxes for free, the Telegraph reported.
In a recent opinion poll, the DUP scored 25 percent and Sinn Fein 22 percent.
The SDLP -- moderate centre-left Catholic Nationalists -- scored 20 percent, the UUP -- moderate conservative Protestant Unionists -- got 16 percent and the cross-party Alliance scored nine percent.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair dreams of success in Belfast before his planned departure from office by September, in order to leave on a high note after the controversy surrounding the war in Iraq.
If the squabbling parties cannot agree to form an executive by March 26, then the assembly will be dissolved and Northern Ireland will be governed indefinitely from London, with the participation of Dublin.