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27 November 2003 Edition

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Making history

BY LAURA FRIEL

By the time this article is read, we will know whether Sinn Féin's hope of an historic breakthrough is political reality rather than aspiration. As the people of the North go to the polls, all signs are fortuitous, with door-to-door canvassing promising a significant swing within the nationalist electorate to Sinn Féin and a new willingness among those who traditionally have not supported the party to switch their allegiance or transfer to Sinn Féin.

"It's like pushing a boulder up a mountainside," said Connie, an election worker. "Building Sinn Féin's electoral strategy is all about hard work, and near the summit the load gets heavier but once we make it to the peak the momentum changes and there will be no stopping us. Will we get there this time? Who knows? But it's looking better and better," she grins.

And the flash of teeth and the fleeting image of the Cheshire Cat frequently came to mind when talking to members of Sinn Féin during this election campaign. Over coffee in a local café, a grinning Pat Doherty confided that the news was "so good" in West Tyrone "it can't be true". Similar evaluations were being heard throughout the North. It was left to Gerry Kelly to sound a more cautious note. "Whatever happens in the election we know we'll be back putting the process back on track again," he said.

Meanwhile, the misjudged negative campaigning of the SDLP wasn't going down quite as well amongst an increasingly confident and assertive nationalist electorate. The SDLP had launched their election campaign by wrong footing their strongest candidate in West Belfast.

Dr Joe Hendron is a congenial nationalist with a long established personal vote. But the SDLP decision to launch a scathing and unwarranted attack on the former Health Minister Bairbre de Brún as their opening shot did nothing to enhance the SDLP's slipping fortunes in West Belfast.

The SDLP had failed to appreciate that for West Belfast nationalists in particular and northern nationalists more generally, Bairbre de Brún had not simply been a Sinn Féin Health Minister but their Health Minister. And she had done them proud, representing northern nationalists at their best, diligent, fair minded and embracing change.

The SDLP's image of itself as honest broker was exposed as hypocrisy once it was revealed that the SDLP had shied away from taking the Health Portfolio after the last Assembly elections, afraid that the brief was too big to handle with merit. But where the SDLP fears to tread...

Honesty wasn't the strong point of the SDLP's campaign to re-elect Alex Attwood either. Attwood had scraped through the last election to take the fifth West Belfast seat on the basis of Hendron's transfers. As chair of his party and after four years in office, you might imagine that Attwood had huge advantages against Sinn Féin's fifth candidate Michael Ferguson, but apparently not.

Rather than attempt to build support on the basis of Attwood's 'record in government', the SDLP opted for scare tactics and the totally spurious claim that if the electorate didn't vote for Attwood, the DUP would gain a seat in West Belfast.

In the 1998 election, Sinn Féin had gained 4.6 quotas, the SDLP secured just over one quota, while less than a quota was split between contending unionist candidates, the UUP, DUP, PUP and Alliance. There was never any possibility of the DUP securing a seat in West Belfast. It was utter nonsense.

And then there was the equally spurious claim that Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams had conceded to the unionist veto when it came to any future border poll. There are lies, damn lies and SDLP electoral campaigns, it seems.

Meanwhile, David Trimble, like a man trapped on a down escalator, had been desperately running to keep up. The UUP began its campaign predicting that they would increase their vote and number of seats. By the middle of the campaign the UUP confirmed that their predicted gains rested entirely on securing one extra seat. By polling day, the UUP were declaring they would take no losses.

Trimble had been heckled by DUP supporters on the Shankill with a rendition of "what shall we do with the traitor Trimble?" with a chorus of "hang him, hang him, hang him in the morning". And this being the Shankill, the home of the Butchers and Johnny Adair, no one, least of all Trimble, was wholly confident that the threat was not about to be realised. "That's the trouble with coming to places like this," Trimble had confided to a sympathetic looking journalist.

But Trimble's real trouble was with the middle class unionist electorate that had voted in support of the Agreement but had failed to vote ever since. In the rural heartlands of Upper Bann and the gold coast of County Down, the UUP fought a Pro-Agreement election, daring for once to call the bluff of the DUP and the dissidents within their own ranks.

Now the popular media constantly peddles the idea that Sinn Féin and the DUP are somehow different sides of the same coin, but when it comes to attempting to sell the electorate a pup, the DUP appear to hold more in common with the SDLP.

The story of the DUP's campaign has been how to keep Ian Paisley off the air. The DUP leader posed for photographers but was always unavailable for interview. In the DUP's 'battle bus', Paisley was pictured in the driving seat, but he'd nowhere to go and nothing to say.

And for the first time, Paisley' stature appeared to have outgrown his strength, both physically and metaphorically. He was a man of his time and time had already passed. "They tell me I am dying," he told a reporter, "but death can take a long time."

Too long, apparently, for the ambitions of Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds. What is clearly apparent to the heirs apparent is that 'never, never, never' is no longer a viable position and 'no surrender' sounds more like no future than a principled stance.

The SDLP lie to the nationalist electorate has been that only they can defend progress against the ravages of unionism. The DUP lie to the unionist electorate has been that only they can defend unionism against the ravages of progress. Neither is true.

And unlike Robert De Niro, Sinn Féin is not simply waiting.

"For us this election started two years ago. Sinn Féin, more than any other party, has been involved in intensive canvassing on the doorsteps," Gerry Adams told an eve of poll press conference.

"It is my view that a small but significant amount of far sighted unionist voters are going to give our party a preference. This is because the electorate are looking at the record of Sinn Féin in the Peace Process. Whether they like our politics or not, and an increasing number do, progressive people know that we have taken real risks for peace.

"They know the Peace Process is the future, they want that future and they know that we are the party that can be trusted to manage that process in a way that is to the best advantage of everyone who lives here. Only by strengthening Sinn Féin's hand can this process work, and more and more people are beginning to see this," said Adams.

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