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Brexit to the fore again in Northern Ireland local elections

DUP leader Donaldson speaks after a meeting with British PM Sunak in Belfast

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland holds elections to local councils on Thursday that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is pitching as an opportunity to bolster its call for further concessions from Britain on a revised post-Brexit trade deal.

The DUP says it will not drop a 15-month boycott of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government unless London introduces laws to protect Northern Ireland's ability to trade freely with the rest of the UK and offers greater flexibility around a deal struck with the European Union in February to ease trade checks.

With polls suggesting the party may fall into second place behind Irish nationalists Sinn Fein - as it did in elections to the devolved assembly last year - the DUP wants to avoid losing too many votes to other unionist parties and the fast-growing cross-community Alliance Party.

"Unionists have a clear choice. They can strengthen our position as we seek to finish the job of restoring Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom or unionism can divide and splinter," DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told supporters last week.

Counting begins on Friday and is likely to continue into Saturday.

The leaders of Britain, Ireland and most recently U.S President Joe Biden have all urged the DUP to restore power-sharing - a key part of a 1998 peace deal that mostly ended three decades of sectarian conflict.

London has said it will introduce laws to protect unfettered Northern Ireland/British trade, but it is unclear what exactly is needed to satisfy the DUP and whether the legislation will be compatible with the revised EU/UK Northern Ireland trade deal.

The DUP will view a solid election outing as a "continuing mandate" for its boycott, said Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, while a splintering of the vote benefiting the small, more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) would only serve to harden the DUP's stance.

"I'm not expecting a big rainbow to appear after the election. What's more likely than not is that this will be a display of unionist resolve which, in the short term at least, will actually make things worse," he said.

"It is a case that this is another hurdle to get over, something almost to be endured."

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson, writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Sharon Singleton)