28 April 2005 Edition

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Republicans optimistic as campaign gears up

BY LAURA FRIEL

Newry/Armagh

Sunshine and showers might be the weather forecast but nothing can dent the optimism of Sinn Féin canvassers in Newry and Armagh. Candidate in the Westminster elections, Conor Murphy's profile as a top rank politician, together with his record of effective local representation, leaves him well placed to secure the seat for Sinn Féin.

For almost 20 years, the mainly nationalist Newry and Armagh constituency has been held by Séamus Mallon of the SDLP. Mallon took the seat from the UUP during a by-election in 1986 and has been returned ever since. Over the years, Mallon enjoyed a substantial personal vote and it was always going to be difficult for the SDLP to hold the seat after Mallon retired.

But as the statistics clearly show, even if the SDLP had been able to persuade Mallon to stand again, the swing towards Sinn Féin would have remained decisive. In the last Westminster election in 2001, the SDLP polled 20,785 votes (37.4%) to Sinn Féin's 17,209 (30.9%) but despite retaining the seat, the SDLP vote was already suffering significant decline. By 2003, during the last Assembly elections, Sinn Féin's percentage vote had already jumped by 10%, leaving the SDLP with just one successful candidate to Sinn Féin's three.

A 13.83% increase in first preference votes gave Sinn Féin 39.79% of the Newry and Armagh vote in 2003. It was the largest first preference gain for the party across the North. In sharp contrast, the SDLP vote fell by 10.45%.

There's no doubt about it, the inexorable rise of Sinn Féin places Conor Murphy in the key position of being the candidate most likely to succeed. But the local party is taking nothing for granted and is working hard to ensure their candidate's success.

Murphy has been a politician for 15 years and has worked as a local councillor for eight years. In the last six years, the local party has almost doubled the Sinn Féin vote in the heart of one the SDLP's most formidable areas.

"We are very confident that we will win this campaign in both the Westminster and local government elections. Sinn Féin almost took the seat of Séamus Mallon in 2001 and we consolidated that with success in the Assembly elections two years later. We are confident but not complacent and we're all working hard to secure every vote," said Conor.

As for the opposition, former SDLP politician and commentator Brian Feeney has already dubbed Dominic Bradley as "a nice middle class, middle aged, middle of the road type — all the characteristics of an SDLP loser".

In the local government election in Armagh and Newry, the candidate to watch is Siobhán Vallely, standing in the Cusher Ward. At 22, Siobhan is one of the youngest candidates. Of the five in the Cusher ward there is only one nationalist seat, formerly held by the SDLP's Séamus Mallon.

In the last council election, the SDLP polled 11,000 votes to Sinn Féin's 600 and Cusher is the only council ward in the Newry and Armagh area to date without Sinn Féin representation. There is no doubt that Siobhán is facing a tough fight against the SDLP candidate, another young female hopeful, Sharon Haughey, but the Shinners just love a challenge.

A Sinn Féin victory here would further confirm the party's growing electoral strength and its mantle as the largest nationalist party in the North.

South Down

In South Down, word on the ground is that canvassing for Caitríona Ruane is going extremely well and she's in with more than a chance, even against the SDLP's strongest candidate, Eddie McGrady.

McGrady, the anti-Agreement wing of the SDLP, is renowned for his anti-republican rhetoric and more recently, for being caught out briefing against his then party leader, John Hume, to a British political spy. McGrady's position as a viper at the bosom was further confirmed when it was revealed that the meeting between the NIO spook and McGrady had taken place at the SDLP man's home.

McGrady's right-wing credentials are less surprising when you realise that the previous incumbent of the seat he acquired in 1987 was British racist Enoch Powell.

According to local Sinn Féin election workers, the greatest asset for the party in the South Down area is the candidate herself. "Caitríona is personable, intelligent and very good on the doorsteps. People like her and she's always good in front of a camera," said a local insider.

A fluent Spanish speaker and Gaelgeoir, Caitríona has an impressive track record as an international aid worker, both for a US-based aid foundation in Central America and for Trocaire. She was also an international observer for the elections in South Africa that saw Nelson Mandela elected as President. In 2000, President Mary McAleese presented Caitríona with the Aisling Person of the Year award.

In the 2003 Assembly elections, in which both Caitríona Ruane and her party colleague Willie Clarke were successfully elected, Sinn Féin registered its second largest percentage vote gain. The party won 26.48% of the poll, a staggering 11.35% increase from 1998.

South Belfast

Meanwhile, in South Belfast Alex Maskey maintains that he is the candidate best placed to secure the seat for nationalists. Formerly held by the Ulster Unionists, the retirement of Martin Smyth has thrown the area into disarray for unionists and opened the election up for nationalist success.

"We've a good election team and we've been canvassing throughout the constituency. It's an open contest and Sinn Féin is fighting for every vote. We are confident that we will increase our vote," said Alex.

And Sinn Féin's increasing vote is what it is all about in South Belfast. "There has been a steady trend of growing Sinn Féin support which places us in a strong position in what remains an open contest," says Alex.

The SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell secured a strong vote in 2001 but that was largely down to tactical voting and a lot has changed since then. Sinn Féin almost doubled its vote in the 2003 Assembly elections and that trend of growing electoral support continued in last year's European election.

"While Sinn Féin's vote is growing, the SDLP has watched its electoral support continuously decline. The trend towards Sinn Féin is unmistakable," says Alex.

"On the ground, Alasdair McDonnell is not seen as a nationalist and in an area which has suffered a number of racist attacks, the SDLP's decision to use Michael McDowell, the south's minister for deportation, to endorse their candidate, has not impressed local people. McDonnell lacks vision for the future and has based his campaign on attacks against Sinn Féin."


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