By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST – Northern Ireland’s politicians are cranking themselves up for the June 25 elections, although much of the frenetic activity of the referendum campaign is missing so far.
Observers are putting this down to “political fatigue” after the stress and long hours of the Stormont talks and the subsequent keenly fought referendum campaign.
The political temperature is likely to be raised this week when the early release of prisoners is debated at Westminster, with the heat increasing next week as polling day draws nearer.
Nominations have now closed, with more than 260 candidates seeking election to 108 seats in the 18 six-seater constituencies. As usual, the battles within each community will be more closely watched than the electoral battle between them.
What is new about this election is that voters will be able to cast second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth preferences for candidates of their choice, with a reasonable chance that their views will count.
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The SDLP is urging its voters to cast their second preferences for parties committed to partnership government, a clear hint that it could support the Ulster Unionists rather than Sinn Fein.
An Irish Times chose to lead its report on an opinion poll with the headline “SDLP and UUP have 60 percent of Assembly Support,” a clear reference to speculation that the two parties are drawing closer together.
John Hume’s election video shows photographs of him standing alongside David Trimble, the UUP leader, as well as claiming the political inheritance of Martin Luther King.
Sinn Fein will be hard-pressed to hold onto its share of the vote. Some Republicans may stay at home, reluctant to participate in any election to a “new Stormont” however hedged with guarantees.
The UUP needs a resounding win against those Unionists who voted “No” in the May 22 referendum. If the party gains 30 seats out of the 100 up for grabs, the anti-Agreement unionists could begin to throw doubt on the Assembly.
For their part, the DUP and UK Unionists say this is the last chance for unionists voters to have their say against the agreement and give the “No” camp the upper hand in the Assembly.
The Irish Times poll shows the UUP with 33 percent support, the SDLP with 27 percent, the DUP with 13 percent, Alliance with 10 percent, Sinn Fein with 8 percent and the UK Unionists with 3 percent. Undecideds stand at 28 percent.
Opinion polls in Northern Ireland always tend to show less support for the DUP and Sinn Fein than actually exists in the community. So it’s doubtful Sinn Fein has less support than the Alliance Party.
The high level of undecideds could mean a far lower turnout for the June 25 elections than for the referendum, when 81 percent of people voted. If Sinn Fein’s vote is accurately reflected in the real poll, it would be a devastating blow for the party.
Looking at the individual contests, one of the more interesting tussles will be in North Antrim where former IRA gunrunner Joe Cahill, sentenced to death in 1942 but reprieved, is standing against the DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley.
Also interesting will be the contest in Upper Bann between Trimble and County Armagh Orange Grand Master, Denis Watson, who is running on a “No” ticket and who has been instrumental in the Order’s march down the Garvaghy Road.
In Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Jim Dixon, a former Ulster unionist very seriously injured in the IRA’s Enniskillen bombing is running for Bob McCartney’s UK Unionist Party, again on a “No” ticket.