While mainland Britain chooses between Tony Blair's Labor Party and William Hague's Conservatives, voting in the province of Northern Ireland is boiling down to one crucial issue - the survival of the 1998 peace accord.

Heading into Thursday's vote, polls suggested that the race in several districts was too close to call. Bitter Protestant splits and growing Catholic ambitions were making this the most unpredictable vote since Northern Ireland's foundation as a Protestant-majority state 80 years ago.

The traditional No. 1 British Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, is hoping to retain nine of the province's 18 seats in the national parliament in London. A decent performance is essential for Ulster Unionist chief David Trimble, who also leads the joint Catholic-Protestant government central to the 1998 pact.

But Trimble faces attack on one hand from hard-line Protestants who heap scorn on his willingness to compromise, on the other from the two major Catholic-backed parties who complain he hasn't compromised enough. All could score victories at Trimble's expense and build pressure for his resignation or ouster.

"These elections will determine the fundamental question of whether our new constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland can survive," said Seamus Mallon, Trimble's Catholic partner atop the government. Mallon's moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, which represents most Catholics, already has three lawmakers and is contending in four Ulster Unionist-held districts.

The hard line Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, is challenging Trimble's candidates in almost all areas, reversing a previous policy to stand aside in areas where a split Protestant vote could open the door for a Catholic win.

"David Trimble is the traitor of traitors, the liar of liars. The Protestant people will stomach no more deceit from this man," thundered Paisley, whose party wants to unravel Northern Ireland's power-sharing government because it includes Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party.

Paisley is hoping to improve on his party's three-seat holding, and could unseat Ulster Unionists in three areas. But his challenge also looks likely to help Sinn Fein score its best-ever showing since the party began contesting Northern Ireland elections in 1982.

Sinn Fein is favored to win Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the meandering border district where IRA prisoner Bobby Sands won election during his fatal hunger strike 20 years ago. The Ulster Unionist's moderate candidate, Jim Cooper, fears losing too many Protestant votes to an uncompromising rival, Jim Dixon, who suffered terrible injuries in an IRA bomb attack in 1987.

"I represent the unspeakable pain inflicted on the Protestant community by 30 years of IRA terrorism - the terrorism now at the very heart of our government," said Dixon, who is standing as an independent with Paisley's blessing.

Trimble has appealed for Protestants, particularlthose turned off by Northern Ireland's sectarian-driven politics, to back his party or watch power-sharing with Catholics grind to a halt. Many moderate Protestants voted in support of a 1998 referendum on the Good Friday accord, but since have demonstrated no appetite for voting Ulster Unionist.

"I appeal to people to make a simple, crucial choice: to back a style of politics that strives to make things work, or to back Paisley's huffing and puffing which has brought nothing but destruction to our country," Trimble said.

One of the most closely watched races is in north Belfast, a patchwork of polarized Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, where a sixth of the 3,200 fatalities in Northern Ireland's conflict were slain. High walls and police watchtowers continue to keep check on communal hatreds in a part of the capital that, like much of Northern Ireland, is growing increasingly Catholic.

The incumbent, Ulster Unionist Cecil Walker, has performed badly in live TV performances, proving unable to answer questions and blaming his hearing aids. He is considered likely to lose either to a moderate Catholic lawyer, Alban Maginness; the Democratic Unionists' Nigel Dodds; or Gerry Kelly, a one-time IRA bomber.

By Shawn Pogatchnik
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