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30 October 2003 Edition

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Shaping up for elections

BY LAURA FRIEL

There's nothing quite like unionist grandstanding and British pressure to oil the wheels of Sinn Féin's famous "electoral machine" and true to form, within 24 hours of the election announcement, party workers throughout the Six Counties were busy canvassing door to door.

"David Trimble's rejection of a major act of IRA decommissioning has bolstered support among nationalists for Sinn Féin and could cause huge damage to the Ulster Unionist Party's prospects in next month's Assembly elections," said the Sunday Business Post.

"Under the electoral rules set out in the Good Friday Agreement, the party with the most seats nominates the North's First Minster. The UUP and the DUP look like getting around the same number of seats. If the SDLP does collapse, then Sinn Féin will win more seats than either of the unionist parties and will nominate First Minister," speculates the Post.

According to the Sunday Life, Sinn Féin is poised for the kind of election landslide that already has the SDLP's electoral strategists running for cover behind the Ulster Unionist Party.

"The SDLP is determined to prevent Sinn Féin sweeping to Assembly power as the major nationalist party, with a strategy depending crucially on the Ulster Unionists. And while they already privately concede that Sinn Féin may romp home top of the polls in certain seats, SDLP chiefs believe a Sinn Féin landslide can be halted," reports the Sunday Life.

"The SDLP's recipe for victory is based upon enlisting Ulster Unionist support against Sinn Féin." This means the SDLP "must attempt a broad-based campaign" which will attract "back up support by Ulster Unionist voters".

The Sunday Life does concede there's one teeny weenie problem with the SDLP's strategy. In its desperation to thwart Sinn Féin, the SDLP is being forced to seek salvation from a party, the UUP, which most commentators believe will be hard pressed to save itself.

"The DUP may still split the unionist vote so drastically that Sinn Féin gathers strength in crucial areas," concludes the Sunday Life. One difficulty the paper fails to acknowledge is that at a time when nationalists are growing in both strength and confidence, the SDLP is caught in the dilemma of peddling a nationalist-unionist message, whatever that might be.

Sitting on the fence-ism is already playing havoc with Mark Durkan's clarity of message. Following last week's failure of David Trimble to grasp an opportunity to put the DUP and other unionist naysayers into their box, Durkan was trying to secure the moral high ground by blaming everyone but the SDLP.

Wooing the unionist electorate by grasping the UUP's "more transparency" baton, Durkan went on to reassure nationalists, "that's not a matter of saying I sympathise with David Trimble", and then it was back to reassuring unionists, by pointing out that he didn't sympathise with "Sinn Féin or the IRA", either. And so back and forth went the mixed message.

"I don't believe it's fair to ask the rest of us to write references to who was wrong on this and who was right in this." [Now there's a catchy election strategy, the no more writing references campaign.] "The fact is they're [the UUP and Sinn Féin] both to blame," said Durkan, dangerously close to sounding like the DUP.

But that aside, most commentators agree that the SDLP has collapsed into the "it's not fair" party. "The SDLP has been whinging a lot these days about being excluded and sidelined," reported Saturday's Irish Times.

"The party put a grumbling Eddie McGrady onto the BBC's Hearts and Minds on Thursday only to hear the UUP negotiator Michael McGimpsey jeer that if John Hume and Séamus Mallon had been in charge, the party would have broken the door down," said the Sunday Tribune.

And all that crying into the wind appears to have got them nowhere. "The SDLP, seen by most as ineffectual and increasingly irrelevant, now appears to be facing a Fine Gael-style meltdown to Sinn Féin's benefit," said the Sunday Business Post.

"Already on the back foot, having been overtaken by the Sinn Féin vote in 2001's Westminster General Election, the SDLP stands to suffer further losses in the November poll. There may be as many as 47 nationalist seats up for grabs," said the Post.

The newspaper predicts a very close outcome between the main parties, with the DUP securing 28 seats, the UUP 26, Sinn Féin 25 and the SDLP 21 seats. Clearly, there is everything to play for.

Meanwhile, Belfast's Newsletter was announcing that "Christmas comes early for the No camp" predicting that the "Ulster Unionists will have to pull out all the stops if they want to redeem themselves and remove the perception that they were somehow conned by the Provos".

Commenting on the 'halted' sequencing of last Tuesday, the paper continues: "As the situation went from bad to worse, anti-Agreement politicians, spearheaded by the DUP, clearly couldn't believe their luck."

Anti-Agreement unionists had "tasted blood" as Trimble "reeled from self-inflicted wounds".

"Santa Claus had come early for the nay-sayers of unionism, bearing election trail goodies and untold extra votes for the DUP's Christmas stocking," said the Newsletter.

For nationalists, the flaw at the heart of David Trimble's leadership is not that he is a pro-Agreement unionist unable to appease his anti-Agreement grassroots, but rather at the core Trimble appears to be anti-Agreement too. Nationalists fear the difference between the UUP and DUP is one of style rather than substance.

According to the Sunday Business Post, Trimble has "a history of opposition to the Good Friday Agreement" and is a man who has repeatedly refused to share power with nationalists in the North.

In an article entitled "Trimble's latest Tantrum", the UUP leader is described as "intransigent", "pompous" and "using every opportunity possible to avoid sharing power, with last week's tantrum over decommissioning just the latest".

The Post's columnist is even more terse in his assessment of the UUP. "Simply British, reads the slogan on the new UUP election poster. Above the slogan is apparently the new symbol of what this political party now stands for: a heap of fish and chips in an old newspaper. Such is the political sophistication of this the original Northern Unionist party, such is the depth of the political message under which David Trimble will face the electorate.

"Given the political project at hand in the North after all the terrible years might there have been a slogan about, say, equality or citizenship or reconciliation or indeed anything about the task in hand? Any mention of being pro-Agreement or seeking a new democratic society or perhaps even a mention of the word 'peace'? No."

Instead, the UUP has chosen to re-jig "the old slogan that Ulster is British", says the commentator. "The old crown and bible stuff has given way to the new fish and chips, but otherwise the message is the same."

Meanwhile "Sinn Féin is on course to increase its number of Dáil seats and could even hold the balance of power after the next election," writes Stephen Collins of the Sunday Tribune. According to an opinion poll carried out by the Tribune, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has a higher satisfaction rating among voters in the South than any of the party leaders in the Dáil.

And this is despite the fact that what happens in the North is the lowest of all priorities for voters in the South. With a significant rise of 8%, Adams polled 53% in the satisfaction rating compared to the 34% of Bertie Ahern, a figure that shows that the Taoiseach's popularity rate has been slashed by more than half within two years.

But of course the only polls currently occupying the minds of republicans are those of the 26 November election for Assembly seats in the North. And here too, the media agrees, Sinn Féin's prospects are looking ever brighter.

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