22 April 2010 Edition
Seizing the initiative
Sinn Féin South Belfast candidate Alex Maskey on Tuesday withdrew his nomination for the forthcoming Westminster election in a bold display of leadership. The Sinn Féin decision to maximise nationalist representation comes after a unionist unity candidate was put forward in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the SDLP rebuffed earlier discussions on an electoral pact. The Sinn Féin initiative is aimed at protecting the two nationalist seats under threat from unionism.
Speaking in Enniskillen on Tuesday afternoon, where he was accompanied by Alex Maskey and Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said:
“This is a bold leadership initiative by Sinn Féin. It is about protecting and defending two nationalist seats.
“Sinn Féin today is demonstrating leadership in the wider interests of nationalism, not for narrow party political concerns. We have taken this unilateral initiative with the sole aim of maximising nationalist representation by standing aside in South Belfast. I believe that this initiative will be widely welcomed by nationalists.”
Maskey withdraws in dramatic move
Focus now on Fermanagh and South Tyrone
BY LAURA FRIEL
In a dramatic move, Sinn Féin announced it has withdrawn the party’s candidate in South Belfast. Alex Maskey is to stand aside in a last minute bid to protect two nationalist seats, one in Belfast and the second in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Last week SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie rejected approaches by Sinn Féin to secure the best chances of returning sitting nationalist and republican MPs in South Belfast, currently held by Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Announcing the decision, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said, “this is a bold leadership initiative by Sinn Féin. It is about protecting and defending two nationalist seats.”
The West Belfast MP said that he believed that “this initiative will be widely welcomed by nationalists, although there will be understandable disappointment in South Belfast that they will not have a republican candidate”.
In the wake of Sinn Féin’s announcement, the focus has moved sharply onto Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Despite the fact the figures show SDLP candidate Feargal McKinney has no chance of securing the seat, the SDLP to date have refused to withdraw.
A decision by the DUP to concede the constituency to a former UUP councillor, Rodney Connor, will mean that the sitting MP Michelle Gildernew is facing a neck or nothing race in which every nationalist vote counts, making the Fermanagh and South Tyrone campaign one of the most exciting in the forthcoming Westminster election.
In a few weeks the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone will be casting their votes and in selecting their candidate of choice they will have a proud history upon which to draw.
A rural area close to the border with an almost equally balanced nationalist and unionist population, the constituency is one of the most marginal in all of the Six Counties.
Not surprisingly, elections have been fought here with great energy and commitment and the constituency can proudly boast of holding the record for repeatedly securing the largest voter turnouts in the North.
In 1981 Fermanagh and South Tyrone became the focus of one of the most significant elections in the history of Ireland. While on hunger strike in the H Blocks of Long Kesh, Bobby Sands stood as a candidate after the sudden death of the sitting MP, Frank Maguire triggered a bye-election.
With Bobby only days away from death and other protesting prisoners following close behind him, when the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone cast their votes they held the hopes of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people throughout the world seeking a resolution.
It is a rare opportunity that such a small act as casting a vote can change the course of history but on that day, 6 April 1981, the nationalist voters of Fermanagh and South Tyrone did just that.
Bobby Sands won the seat with 30,493 votes and 51.2% of the vote, figures that suggest that almost without exception, the entire nationalist population of Fermanagh and South Tyrone had turned out in support of the prisoners and in defiance of the British government.
Within weeks of Bobby’s election, the Thatcher government had rushed legislation through the British House of Commons to bar prisoners from standing as candidates. The imposition of repressive legislation meant that Bobby Sands was the last prisoner to stand in an election in the North but he wasn’t the first, not even in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
In the mid 1950s Philip Clarke was one of two republican prisoners to stand as candidates. Clarke stood in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, while his comrade stood for the adjacent Mid Ulster constituency. The two IRA Volunteers had been captured during a raid on Omagh barracks a few months before.
The election took place during a period of heightened militancy and the successful election of both prisoners sent a message not only of support for the republican vision of a united Ireland, but also of defiance to the sectarian one-party statelet of their day.
Clarke topped the poll and won the seat with a majority of just 261 votes. Four decades later Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew secured the seat with an even tighter margin of just 53 votes.
Clarke’s election marked the first time since 1918 that any Sinn Féin candidate had been elected to Westminster. As in the wake of the election of Bobby Sands, the state moved swiftly to revoke the democratic decision of the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Clarke was removed from office by petition and the runner up, a UUP candidate, was declared to be elected.
The nationalist community of Fermanagh and South Tyrone would have to wait until the 1970s before they could again successfully secure the seat, first with Francis McManus and later Frank Maguire, a former republican internee in Crumlin Road jail.
McManus lost his seat after the SDLP stood a rival candidate. In splitting the vote, the SDLP allowed UUP leader Harry West to take the seat. Maguire was elected in 1974 without opposition from the SDLP and retained the seat in 1979, despite an attempt by a member of the SDLP to split the vote.
Austin Currie defied a decision by his party’s leadership to avoid splitting the vote and stood as an independent in the election but Maguire retained the seat. It was Maguire’s death while in office in 1981 that prompted the by election subsequently won by Bobby Sands.
Following Bobby Sands’ death, the seat was successfully contested by the hunger striker’s former election agent, Owen Carron. He stayed in office until 1983, when the SDLP fielded a rival candidate and in doing so allowed the election of the UUP’s Ken Maginnis.
The SDLP’s intervention and the DUP decision to leave the field uncontested ensured the constituency stayed with Ken Maginnis for next 18 years. In 1996 the Forum elections confirmed Sinn Féin as the largest nationalist party in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, when it outpolled the SDLP by 1,300 votes.
Subsequent elections reinforced Sinn Féin’s majority nationalist support. In 1997 the party increased the margin to over 2,000 and in the 1998 Assembly elections Sinn Féin out polled both the SDLP and UUP. The poll confirmed that the combined nationalist vote in Fermanagh and South Tyrone was almost 1,000 votes greater than the combined unionist tally.
Standing as Sinn Féin’s candidate in the 2001 Westminster elections, Michelle Gildernew predicted “the election of the first republican MP in the area since Bobby Sands and the first female MP from the Six counties since Bernadette Devlin” 30 years earlier.
The photograph carried on the front page of An Phoblacht a week later said it all. There was a jubilant Michelle, arms raised in victory and flanked by two other successful Sinn Féin candidates, Pat Doherty and Martin McGuinness. Fermanagh and South Tyrone had been the last constituency to declare, after the UUP contested the first count.
It was after 10pm when Michelle’s election was finally declared and she stepped into the annals of Irish history and became the first Sinn Féin woman to be elected to Westminster since Countess Markievicz in 1918. Next month’s election is set to be just as tightly fought.
Appearing on The Politics Show, SDLP candidate Feargal McKinney argued that Sinn Féin’s position on the Westminster Parliament and their refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the British monarchy undermines their ability to wield significant political power. But the facts just don’t stack up.
For a start, take the actions of former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who when first elected as leader announced he was standing aside in the Westminster elections because real power now rested within the Assembly.
Now, having stood down as SDLP leader, Durkan is standing as a candidate for Westminster. That decision has led some to speculate that the former SDLP leader’s bid for Westminster has more to do with a cushioned retirement option than a desire for cutting edge politicking.
Then there’s the appalling attendance record of the SDLP. The question has to be asked: if the SDLP consider attendance in the British House of Commons so important; why do they attend so infrequently?
The stark truth is that the real power does not lie in the British Parliament’s debating chamber. Sinn Féin deploys its electoral strength in negotiating directly with the British Prime Minister, his Cabinet and officials. Sinn Féin’s ability to hold Downing Street to account has played and continues to play a key role in the ongoing Peace Process and political development in the North.
Michelle Gildernew canvassing in Moy
SDLP challenged at packed Enniskillen meeting
A large crowd gathered in the Clinton Centre, Enniskillen, on Thursday night, 15 April, for Sinn Féin’s annual Public Engagement meeting, arranged as part of Sinn Féin’s wider consultation with members of the public and civic society. The meeting was attended by Minister for Agriculture & Rural Development and Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew and by deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Members of the public brought up many issues for discussion, including roads, the health service and education, but the most discussed issue was that of the single unionist candidate.
Several members of the audience questioned the panel on how independent Rodney Connor could be beaten with the backing of two political parties and the Orange Order.
Other issues that were raised were unionists seeking a return to the Orange State and the return of blatant sectarianism in the constituency.
In response to this, Michelle Gildernew said: “I have been the MP for all the people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone for nine years. Rodney Connor wants to return to the days when nationalists in this area were unrepresented. Nationalists in this constituency need to unite to ensure that this does not happen.”
Following on from that, reaction was sought on the SDLP’s decision to refuse to enter discussions on increasing nationalist representation. Gildernew said: “Sinn Féin made a genuine initiative to try and ensure that nationalists in both Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast retain their representation. We offered to stand aside in South Belfast in return for the SDLP doing the same in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
“This initiative came in direct response to demands of the voters on the doorsteps following on from the announcement of a unity Tory/Unionist candidate. I have now seen a mixture of anger, dismay and disappointment from the electorate at the decision of the SDLP to reject this initiative without even the courtesy of a meeting.
“I would now challenge Margaret Ritchie to come to Fermanagh and South Tyrone and explain to the nationalist community why she has rejected this initiative and why she wants to give a leg up to a unionist Tory.
“We will continue to fight for every vote. We will continue to put forward our vision for Irish unity and stand on our record of effective representation here and elsewhere. This will be a close election. Every nationalist vote will count. A vote for the SDLP in this election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a wasted vote. I am appealing to all those Nationalists who normally vote for the SDLP to lend me their vote in this election and in the next election, you can return to vote for the SDLP if you so wish.”
Former POW Kevin Lynch addressing the meeting
Deadlines for electoral ID and exceptional circumstances forms
People hoping to cast their vote on 6 May should be aware of a number of deadlines applying for Electoral Identity Cards and applications for exceptional circumstances for postal and proxy votes.
Firstly, people wishing to apply for an electoral Identity Card need to have their application in before the deadline on Friday 23 April so it can be processed in time.
Also, anyone who has just received confirmation for admission to hospital for an operation/treatment and will be unable to make it to the polling station on election day and who wishes to apply for a postal or proxy vote on the grounds of exceptional circumstances must have their forms in before Tuesday 27 April.