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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Votes Cast for Irish Peace Negotiators

BELFAST -- Protestants and Catholics went to the polls Thursday to decide which parties should represent them in Northern Ireland's long-delayed peace negotiations.

Twenty-four parties are vying for a role in negotiations scheduled to start June 10. Britain says only the top 10 parties overall, or top five parties within each Northern Ireland parliamentary district, will be represented. The votes will be counted Friday.

The IRA-allied Sinn Fein party is certain to gain enough support to make the cut, as are the province's two main Protestant parties. But the British and Irish governments say Sinn Fein still will be barred from the table unless the Irish Republican Army agrees to lower its guns again.

The British and Irish governments announced the election-talks package after the IRA ended its 17-month truce with a deadly truck bomb in London Feb. 9. The vote will select 110 members for a Northern Ireland debating forum, from which smaller negotiating teams will be drawn.

Protestants want their British ties and majority position within the 75-year-old province secured in any settlement, while Catholic leaders are as determined that any new Northern Ireland should be linked or united with the Irish Republic, where Catholics form the overwhelming majority.

Although Protestants had demanded the election before any negotiations as a way to demonstrate Northern Ireland's legitimacy as a state, their side may be splintered among several feuding parties.

The Ulster Unionists, the largest party and a reluctant player in the peace process, is battling for Protestant votes with the Reverend Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party dismisses negotiations as surrender to the IRA.

On the eve of the vote, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble appealed to the Protestant public to support him rather than Paisley. He ridiculed Paisley's anti-talks stance as tantamount to "desertion in the face of the enemy."

A bevy of middle-of-the-road parties, several of them founded especially for this election, will be trying to bring people who can compromise - little spoken in Northern Ireland - to the table.

"Some of the pundits have been too dismissive of the sophistication of our people. They know what they want. They want peace and stability," said Doctor John Alderdice, a psychiatrist and leader of Alliance, the only established party that gets both Catholic and Protestant support.

Hardline parties are expected to fare better in the vote.

On the Catholic side, the main contest is between John Hume's moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, or SDLP, and Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams. With the Protestant house divided, some analysts think the SDLP could emerge as the top vote-getter.

For its part, Sinn Fein seems determined to see how far it can get without a new IRA cease-fire, dismissing speculation that one will soon be announced. Adams said Wednesday his party, which traditionally gets 9 to 12 percent of the vote, would show up at the talks venue in defiance of any ban.

One critical aspect of the election is whether the gunmen from the Protestant side, whose parties have done poorly in the past, will be represented at the talks.

"This election is about war or peace. And we certainly are the people who are calling for peace," said Billy Hutchinson, a former member of the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force who spent 18 years in prison for killing two Catholics.