Sinn Fein wins Belfast council seat
By Jack Holland
Sinn Fein became the largest Nationalist party on Belfast council and the second largest party in the city when Joe Austin, the vice-chairman of the party's executive, won a crucial by-election in the Oldpark district.
The 40-year-old Austin, whose son Damien is currently the subject of an Amnesty International "alert" because of alleged ill treatment at the hands of the police, polled just over 5000 votes.
The seat had previously been held by an Official Unionist Party representative. Austin is the first nationalist ever to represent the Oldpark ward on the city council, and his victory marks an important milestone in the political struggle for dominance in the North's capital.
The result gives Sinn Fein nine city councillors compared with eight for the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the moderate Nationalist party, which claims the largest share of the Catholic vote throughout the North. While elsewhere the SDLP did better, holding off a Sinn Fein challenge in another by-election in the rural Sperrins district, the party must now be concerned about its continued failure to stop the growth of the IRA's political wing in Belfast.
The combined Unionist strength on the council now stands at 27. Sinn Fein has already overtaken Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which has eight seats. Austin's victory brings the number of Nationalists and non-Unionist council seats to 24.
With Nationalists already in control of Northern Ireland's second largest city, Derry, the loss of Belfast would be a serious blow to Unionism.
[Abridged from the Irish Echo.]