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Tuesday, June 23, 1998 Published at 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK

Race is on to top nationalist poll

John Hume (left) and Seamus Mallon (right) hope to hold off Sinn Fein's challenge

Report from BBC News online, Belfast

With just a few days to go until polling in the elections for the new Northern Ireland Assembly, one of the most fascinating battles being fought is within the nationalist community.

The major question seems to be: will Sinn Fein close the electoral gap on the SDLP or will John Hume's party enhance its standing?

There used to be a big gap in support between the SDLP and Sinn Fein, but now it is narrowing. Five years ago, the difference in their share of the overall vote was 9% in the SDLP's favour. At last year's council election the gap was down to just 4%.

In terms of MPs at Westminster it was not long ago that the SDLP had four and Sinn Fein had none, but at the 1997 general election the SDLP won three seats and Sinn Fein two.

However, the difference between the assembly elections and the general election is that Sinn Fein candidates elected to the assembly will take their seats. Neither of Sinn Fein's MPs, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, have taken their seats at Westminster.

Who would bet on the winner?

Sinn Fein is confident that its recent surge in support will continue, but the SDLP's deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, is confident that his party will not be surpassed as Northern Ireland_s largest nationalist party: "It won't happen, first of all. Secondly, anybody who thinks it will happen - I'll have a damn good bet with them that it won't.

"The reality is that people are recognising in the agreement the type of policies the SDLP have been putting, not just last year but for this last 25 years," he said.

Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, says he is more concerned with ensuring a good turnout for his party: "As to whether or not we eclipse the SDLP, that remains to be seen. We're focused on getting our vote out. Getting as big a vote out as possible. And like other parties we want to be the biggest party."

Mr McGuinness says he sees the SDLP not as an enemy but as an opponent, but one he feels Sinn Fein is more than a match for: "Many of the young people coming on to the register see Sinn Fein as the party of the future, a party they can support. I believe they do that on the basis of reality.

"We haven't hidden who we are or where we come from, that we have obviously been involved in struggle and resistance against the British Government and all the inequalities and discriminations and injustices and dominations of the past. We don't hide that from anyone. We're proud to have stood up for our people over the course of the last 30 years."

Youth or vintage?

The age of the SDLP leadership team is seen by some as a disadvantage in the battle for votes with Sinn Fein. But Seamus Mallon says there is no substitute for experience: "The reality is that everyone grows old in politics, Sinn Fein will grow old as well.

"Let's hope we all grow old making this work rather than having the type of snide type of comments that sometimes that particular party makes about us. The good wine comes in older vessels. You'll find there's a lot of good wine still left," he said.

When the assembly votes are counted at the end of the week it will be interesting to see which of the two parties is toasting the most success.

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