Willie Wonky


Occasionally, documentaries on the history of the conflict re-run footage of the People's Democracy march from Belfast to Derry in January 1969. Before they are attacked at Burntollet, the marchers pass through south Derry. Along the road they are verbally abused by loyalists. If you scrutinise the footage closely you will see an apoplectic 20-year-old screaming at the students who are demanding 'one man, one vote' and an end to discrimination.

Two years later this same man is arrested and convicted for riotous behaviour in Dungiven. Closer to God than the rest of us, it wasn't until 1982 that I ran into him, in a street in Drumquin, County Tyrone, when we were electioneering. He completely ignored me when I wished him the top-of-the-morning and offered to share my bottle of buttermilk. No sense of humour whatsoever.

In June 1983 I was the Sinn Fein candidate in Mid-Ulster. On election day, loyalists repeatedly went into the polling station in the village of Coagh and threatened the Sinn Fein agent who had been challenging those impersonating. Thoroughly intimidated the agent pulled out and considerable voting recommenced. At 9.30 pm the DUP personation agent in the school in the nationalist village of Mountfield closed the station, alleging personation. We arrived five minutes before the close of poll and got the station re-opened, but over a hundred people didn't get to vote.

The following day, my election agent Sean Begley and I parked our car in Campsie, Omagh, where the count was taking place. As we walked across the car park a tall, balding man suddenly pulled a gun on us and we thought we were going to be shot. For a few moments no one moved. Then the Reverend William McCrea emerged from a car and his bodyguard put his gun away. (By chance, some months later, I was walking through Magherafelt on a Saturday afternoon when this same RUC man, off-duty, with, presumably, his wife were putting some potted plants in the boot of his car. "Nice car," I remarked.)

At the count in Omagh McCrea's votes and mine climbed together. The unionist vote was split between McCrea and Willie Thompson of the Ulster Unionist Party. The nationalist vote was split between Denis Haughey of the SDLP and myself. In the space of eight months Sinn Fein in Mid-Ulster was overturning an SDLP lead of four thousand votes.

As we got down to the last couple of hundred votes McCrea stopped talking, first, to his wife, then, to his bodyguards, then, to fellow DUP members. He paced the floor. Willie Thompson came over to me, jubilant. "You're going to beat him!" he said. "You're going to beat him!"

As the last vote was counted McCrea beat me by 78 votes. We asked for a re-count. One of my votes was discovered in his pile; one of his in mine. He was the winner by 78 votes. He got up and prayed to God in the ceiling for giving him victory and gave me some abuse. Then I wet myself as he sang a hymn. He was the MP for Mid-Ulster, a constituency with a nationalist majority, for the next fourteen years.

The constituency boundaries were later re-drawn and Martin McGuinness defeated him in the general election of 1997, despite the nationalist vote being split between McGuinness and Denis Haughey. That night there was a victory do in the Felons Club. I brought along one of Reverend Willie's albums, one with that same gospel song that he had personally performed for me fourteen years previously. Shockingly, the heathens in the Felons got up and jived to it. It was sweet. I am so shallow.

And now you tell me, Billy Joe McTrimble's jumped off the Tallahassee Bridge.

A BBC crew filmed McCrea's supporters waiting for their new MP to emerge from the count in Newtownabbey in the early hours of Thursday morning. Why can I not take their Christianity seriously? Is it residual Catholic snobbishness? One of McCrea's supporters, not the best crooner in the world, sang, 'Simply The Best', the anthem of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. What's wrong with that. Willie shared a platform with Billy Wright who shot kids. Officiated at his funeral service. Twenty-five years ago Willie officiated at the funeral services for Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville, two UVF members who were killed by their own bomb outside Banbridge as they slayed members of the Miami Showband. The hokey-pokey is not Willie's type of music.

So what are we to make of this vote. Okay, it was raining. Okay, David Burnside is a sleeping pill. But the soprano won, Trimble lost, and the Good Friday Agreement takes yet another big knock, with the usual cries for nationalists and republicans to turn their pockets inside out and give more.

Let's call the whole thing off, is a very tempting number.

The fact is that the DUP is absolutely right. The majority of unionists, unfortunately, do not want to share power. Some of them are afraid, many have been hurt, some of them are full of bitterness or hatred or both. Their attitudes are a mixed product of partition, complacency in never having to consider another viewpoint, triumphalism and intransigence, all coming to grief in a clash with reality and the nationalist demand for equality. The six-county state was not built with accommodation in mind.

And that is why the Good Friday Agreement, but more so the principles upon which it is founded, has such potential. Through treaty, through law, through public challenge and lobbying, the British government is held to account over equality, over justice, over policing, and, importantly, over unionism.

The Good Friday Agreement can be binned but those principles cannot be evaded. Back in the 1960s, which is were we came in, central government in the USA had a choice on how to deal with racism in the deep South. It could have caved in to those local 'democracies' which would not implement equality legislation. But it was firm, it implemented the law, it stood up to bigotry. It won the day - though there are still massive inequalities, and racism, in North America.

That is the test for this or any British government. It's their problem.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison