Election Gamble


I love elections. I find them exciting. Can’t believe that in my day I voted for Gerry Fitt (several times) and now I – a Sinn Fein supporter - am being asked to vote for pro-Agreement parties that include the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the Progressive Unionist Party! I shall do as I am asked and vote down the line and across the spectrum in the knowledge that it is unlikely to be reciprocated but in the hope that it will help create a culture where in the future it one day might.

The intention, of course, is to get one’s own favourites elected first and then help other pro-Agreement candidates keep out those who are opposed to the Agreement.

Yes, I am an allianced anti-partitionist unionist woman who knows what I want.

Having said that, I have my preferences. In the last general election I was obsessed with West Tyrone, part of the old Mid-Ulster constituency that elected me to the doomed Assembly in 1982. Having canvassed that area in at least six subsequent elections I knew from the reaction on the doorsteps when I went up there in 2001 that Pat Doherty was taking the seat. It didn’t matter what the newspaper opinion polls said to the contrary, it didn’t matter what the SDLP claimed and the media repeated about Brid Rogers being the ‘People’s Champion’, the reaction on the doorsteps said it all: Doc was ousting Willie Thompson and Brid Rogers wasn’t in it.

The final results demonstrated just how far wrong the SDLP and the media were: Sinn Fein was 6,000 votes in front of the SDLP. Six thousand! I am told this time around that Sinn Fein hopes to take a third seat in West Tyrone at the expense of the SDLP and while I am interested in every constituency the three that fascinate me most are Foyle, South Belfast and South Down.

Foyle has been the fiefdom of the SDLP and is where John Hume regularly topped the poll. His successor Mark Durkan, a nice man, but a lacklustre leader is now defending it. There, the party is divided, with former Assembly member Annie Courtney running as an independent. In 1998 the SDLP won three seats. This time they face a strong challenge from Sinn Fein whose team includes former hunger striker Raymond McCartney. Thus, a serious question mark will hang over Mark Durkan’s leadership of the SDLP should he lose a seat to Sinn Fein in this his nest.

In the last Assembly elections in South Belfast there were two Ulster Unionists elected, one DUP, two SDLP and one for the NI Women’s Coalition. Sinn Fein has put forward Alex Maskey, a high profile candidate who impressed many during his year as Belfast Lord Mayor. If there is a general swing to Sinn Fein within the nationalist community – which has been the trend, confirmed as recently as June in a by-election in South Down – then Alex Maskey could take a seat off the SDLP’s Carmel Hanna or Monica Williams of the NIWC.

In South Down the SDLP has ruled the roost but time is now being called. Sinn Fein is putting forward three very strong candidates. Two are sitting councillors: Eamonn McConvey from Downpatrick and Willie Clarke from Newcastle. They are being joined by Caitriona Ruane, the former director of Feile an Phobail and chairperson of the ‘Bring Them Home’ campaign (the ‘Colombia Three’). Currently the SDLP have three of the six seats, Sinn Fein one, and one each to the UUP and the DUP. Sinn Fein hopes to take a second seat.

Caitriona Ruane has been subjected to vitriolic attacks from the SDLP for being a ‘blow in’ (they have forgotten about Brid Rogers emigrating to West Tyrone) and for her work with the Colombia Three. Already, the ‘Irish News’ has had to distance itself from remarks by its columnist Newton Emerson, and two local papers, the ‘Down Recorder’ and the ‘Mourne Observer’ have agreed to apologise for remarks made about her by an SDLP councillor.

South Down, Foyle and Newry and Armagh are three constituencies that the SDLP is so worried about that it has brought in vote managers and expensive PR gurus from the south. I have to say, if this week’s adverts are anything to go by, they are making a haimes of it.

The SDLP has dropped the nonsense it peddled three years ago about us living in a post-nationalist world. Instead, it has adopted a blatantly nationalist agenda (while appealing for unionists to transfer their votes to the party!). It is campaigning for a referendum for a united Ireland and is claiming that it got rid of the RUC, former chief constable Ronnie Flanagan and the Special Branch! Who knows where the SDLP’s revolutionary struggle will go from here.
Its brash, negative campaigning against Sinn Fein runs against a desire for solidarity within the nationalist community and is likely to backfire. In Belfast and Derry it defends its decision to sit on the policing board but in its election literature for Newry and Armagh it completely omits any reference to the district policing partnership boards on which some of its candidates sit!

Finally, Eastwoods has just published its prices on which of the four main parties could emerge with the largest number of Assembly seats after the election. It favours the DUP (2/5 on), followed by the UUP (15/8), Sinn Fein (12/1) and the SDLP (66/1). If it is of any help to you gamblers let me go back to a newspaper article about Eastwoods last predictions in June 2001.

“The bookmakers had their say yesterday on Thursday’s Westminster election… and the news was not good for Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams’ party is pinning its hopes on doubling its Commons representation in the key seats of West Tyrone and Fermanagh-South Tyrone. But, according to Eastwoods, they are in for disappointment.”

In answer to that I would say: Pat Doherty MP and Michelle Gildernew MP.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison