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2 July 1998 Edition

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Towards a future as equals

Sinn Fein's spectacular rise continues



Highest ever vote Third largest party in Ireland



Sinn Fein received over 142,000 first preferences votes throughout the North in last Thursday's Assembly election, making it the third largest party in Ireland, behind only Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin's share of the vote rose to 17.6%, up over 2% on the Forum election of 1996. The SDLP had been some 60,000 votes ahead of Sinn Fein in the six counties; this was halved to just 30,000 in this election. Sinn Fein now commands 45% of the Nationalist vote in the North compared to 30% a mere six years ago.

The party gained eighteen seats in the Assembly which should entitle it to two ministerial posts.

 

17.6% - Sinn Féin's record vote



Sinn Féin tops the poll in 5 constituencies




NEIL FORDE analyses SF's record vote

If you were one of the tens of thousands of people who were watching television coverage of last week's Assembly elections or perhaps reading one of the many newspaper election supplements you could be forgiven for thinking that Sinn Féin was a party on the fringe. TV commentators passed over the party's record election performance to concentrate instead on the drop in the Ulster Unionist Party vote which put a virtually unchanged SDLP in the position of recording the largest number of first preferences.

When the Sinn Féin vote was discussed it was mostly in terms of the party's vote management. Sinn Féin were, it seems, the only party engaged in vote management, the only party who ran candidates tactically to maximise representation for their electorate. This of course is nonsense, the truth is that Sinn Féin produced not the only example of vote management but the best one.

For the record, in last week's Assembly election Sinn Féin registered its highest vote since it began in 1981 to contest elections on a systematic basis. With 17.6% of first preferences the party also recorded the largest growth in votes of any party in the election. Sinn Féin elected 18 Assembly members and topped the poll in five constituencies.

Across the Six Counties Sinn Féin's vote showed gains not only in first preferences but also in strong transfer patterns from other parties to Sinn Féin.

Belfast


In the electoral cauldron of North Belfast Sinn Féin topped the poll just one third of a percent above the DUP and the SDLP. The party's vote in North Belfast has now stayed ahead of the SDLP in three consecutive elections.

In East and South Belfast the Sinn Féin vote also increased. In East Belfast Joe O'Donnell took just over 900 votes, 2.3% of the poll. Sean Hayes in East Belfast improved on his 1997 local election performance when he secured a city council seat. This time Sinn Féin polled 2,605 votes, 6.4% of the poll. An interesting facet of this count was that the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell needed Hayes' transfers to get elected.

In West Belfast the Sinn Féin vote surged from 56% in 1997 to almost 60% this time around. Such a high first preference vote delivered four of the six seats for the party.

Newry and Armagh


One of the most impressive results in terms of seats delivered was in Newry and Armagh. Sinn Féin's vote increased from its 1997 level of 21% to almost 26%. Despite not having enough first preferences to make up two quotas, Sinn Féin still took the same number of seats as the SDLP.

Upper Bann


Upper Bann was Sinn Féin's breakthrough constituency in this election. The party vote increased from 12% of the vote in 1997 to 14.3 % this time. The two Sinn Féin candidates, Dara O'Hagan and Francie Murray, were just below a full quota.

O'Hagan pulled transfers from across the political spectrum. Dara even got five votes from David Trimble's surplus as well as 272 from Brid Rodgers. When Francie Murray was eliminated, 83% of his vote transferred to O'Hagan lifting her above the quota.

South Down


In South Down Mick Murphy repeated his success of 1996 when he secured a Forum seat for Sinn Féin. The party vote in this constituency grew by almost 50% between 1997 and 1998. With 15% of first preferences there was no doubt that Mick Murphy and Garret O'Fachtna could get a seat for Sinn Féin. When O'Fachtna was eliminated after the fifth count 69% of his vote transferred to Murphy.

Fermanagh/South Tyrone


Sinn Féin's electoral progress in the west of the Six Counties was spectacular. In Fermanagh South Tyrone, Mid Ulster and West Tyrone Sinn Féin topped the poll. In Fermanagh the Sinn Féin vote was at almost 27% significantly short of two quotas.

Like Newry Armagh Sinn Féin had run three candidates and all pulled transfers from other candidates. Pat Treanor, Michelle Gildernew and Gerry McHugh ran for the party. As the count progressed it was Gildernew and McHugh who were elected.

Mid Ulster


In Mid Ulster Sinn Féin elected three Assembly members with just 41% of the vote. The DUP's Willie McCrea made much of topping the vote in terms of being the highest polling candidate, but he was the sole DUP candidate elected. Martin McGuinness, Francie Molloy and John Kelly were the three Assembly members elected for Sinn Féin.

West Tyrone


In West Tyrone Sinn Féin took 34% of the vote and two Assembly seats. Pat Doherty and Barry McElduff were the two successful Sinn Féin candidates. Seamus Devine, the third Sinn Féin candidate, hung on until the ninth count but was pipped at the end by McElduff and the SDLP's Eugene McMenamin.

Foyle


In Foyle Sinn Féin's vote increased on its 1997 performance. Sinn Féin won 26% of first preferences; the SDLP vote in this constituency fell by almost 9% on their 1997 Westminster election performance..

Sinn Féin ran four candidates in this constituency, electing Mitchel MacLaughlin and Mary Nelis. Lynn Fleming and Gearoid O'hEara were eliminated on the fourth and fifth counts respectively.

Record vote


In other constituencies Sinn Féin stood candidates whose votes added to the party's record total. In Strangford Paddy McCreevy polled 614 votes, an increase on 1997. Pat Butler in Lagan Valley increased the Sinn Féin vote by 70%. His 2,000 votes made up 4.3% of the poll. There were two Sinn Féin candidates in East Derry. Again the party vote increased with Sinn Féin taking almost 10% of the vote. John McAlhenny and Malachy O'Kane were the two candidates for the party.

In East Antrim Chrissie McAuley increased on her 1997 performance for Sinn Féin, taking 2% of the vote. In North Antrim the two Sinn Féin candidates, Joe Cahill and James McCarry, took over 8% of the vote with 4,000 votes.

Finally, Martin Meehan won't have to give up his burgeoning acting career. His 3,226 votes were an increase on Sinn Féin's 1997 performance in this constituency. Meehan's 7.33% was some way off a quota. His transfers pushed the SDLP's Donovan McClelland over the quota and into an Assembly seat.

 

SF largest party in Belfast



Belfast North


By Sean O Tuama

Sinn Fein topped the poll for the first time in the history of this constituency. The party's Gerry Kelly gained one seat with his colleague, Martina McIlkenny, losing out for a second by just 150 votes. However the party's Director of Elections for north Belfast, Sean Oliver, was in jubilant mood. ``This election shows we are well placed to win another one or two council seats in the area and have the potential to take the Westminster seat as well,'' he said. He added that a major voter registration drive was needed to ensure that the many unregistered Republicans in the district could contribute to Sinn Fein's rising fortunes in the future.

Commenting on the spurious accusation by the SDLP that they too missed out on a second seat because SF voters were not transferring to them, Oliver said, ``What damaged them the most was their appeal to Nationalists to give their preferences to Unionist and Loyalist candidates rather than to Sinn Fein. That policy did not go down well on the doorsteps.''

The shock of this poll was the number of Alliance transfers to unionists which eventually secured a seat for the ``No'' unionist Frazer Agnew in the final count.

The SDLP may have been aware that they would do badly in the constituency judging by their behaviour in polling stations in the area on election day when they challenged people on the most absurd basis. In one incident in the Holy Family polling station, Newington, an SDLP election worker complained about a woman trying to help her son, who has a severe learning difficulty, to fill in his ballot paper.

In the Holy Cross polling stations in Ardoyne an SDLP polling agent challenged so many people in such an aggressive manner that many of the people in the long queues which formed were quite apprehensive. On one occasion she challenged the right of a young woman with Down's syndrome to receive assistance, and on another she objected to a wheelchair-bound woman receiving help getting into the polling booth to cast her vote. She also complained loudly to the election officials demanding to know if it was within the rules for a Sinn Fein polling agent to be chewing gum. It is. At one point the presiding officer warned her that she would be ejected from the station if she did not temper her behaviour.

The refusal of the SDLP to enter into an electoral pact with Sinn Fein undoubtedly cost the Nationalist community a crucial third seat in an election which saw a significantly increased Nationalist vote throughout the constituency. In the end, Sinn Fein and the SDLP gained one seat each with the rest going to loyalist candidates, three of whom were elected without reaching the quota.

 


West Belfast


By Ned Kelly

The election in West Belfast produced an unprecedented mandate for Sinn Fein. They took four of the six available Assembly seats by securing 6 out of every 10 votes, a political mandate up 3% on the May 1997 Westminster election that saw Gerry Adams returned as MP for the area.

Alongside Gerry Adams, Bairbre De Brun, Alex Maskey and Sue Ramsey were also elected. Lisburn councillor Michael Ferguson missed out on a fifth Sinn Fein seat by 2,500 votes. With Sinn Fein getting 1000 less than the last poll and over 700 spoiled votes with X's marked against the five Sinn Fein candidates, this last seat is clearly within reach. One source confirmed that the implications for the SDLP in any future poll is that they will be reduced to just one representative; their vote dropped by over 13%.

On the day of the count in Belfast's city hall it became apparent that division in the unionist vote would deny them any representation, despite 7,900 registered votes in the Shankhill area. By 10.30am, the PUP's Hugh Smyth could be heard muttering ``it don't look good'', as the intra-unionist transfers from the DUP, UKUP and UUP collapsed.

In this constituency also the SDLP mades spurious challenges against voters on polling day. One SDLP election agent challenged a woman in De Salle school in mid-Andersonstown, only to be told by an SDLP worker, ``in the name of God, she's my neighbour and votes for us.''

As the count unfolded and word of the spread of preferences seeped out it became apparent that not only was a large chunk (29%) of Joe Hendron's vote failing to transfer to Attwood but that hundreds of votes, significantly from the middle class Upper Andersonstown area, had preferences spread between Adams and Hendron, with Attwood well down the ballot.

One phenomena underlined Sinn Fein's massive success in West Belfast; in no other Western country is any other political organisation reaching out and offering a voice to the working class or disadvantaged. One senior Sinn Fein election worker said, ``as participatory democracy declines, especially in areas of economic decline, Sinn Fein is able to offer a route for direct democratic participation. The key is the sophistication, astuteness and political awareness of the electorate.'' He also said that one of the main features of the short election campaign was that local activists, not necessarily Sinn Fein members, had been active on the ground and tuned into the issues long before the the central election directorates. He added, ``the challenge now is to develop participation on such a scale into community activism.''

 


Belfast East


By Sean O Tuama

Sinn Fein's Joe O'Donnell increased the party's vote in the area by over a hundred when he received 917 first preferences. O'Donnell was very pleased with the result. ``It puts us in a stronger position for a seat in the next city council elections,'' he said.

Although the DUP's Peter Robinson gained over 11,000 votes to be elected on the first count, his party colleague Sammy Wilson received only 633 first preference votes and it took him until the eleventh count before he was elected.

 


Belfast South


By Sean O Tuama

Sinn Fein's Sean Hayes gained 2,605 first preferences. The party had been hopeful of a seat here but party workers at the City Hall count were pleased at the strengthened Republican vote, up by more than 5% from the last city council election.

A despondent young DUP election worker said during the count that their voters were in need of ``political education.'' His comment was related to the fact that hundreds of first preference DUP votes were spoiled because the voters had written ``No'' beside the name of the SF candidate on the ballot paper.

 

Derry responds with quiet satisfaction



By Martha McClelland

It was the quietest count anyone could recall in Derry's Guildhall.

The usual buzz with its tension and adrenaline was strangely absent. Long hours of deadly boredom somehow passed as box after box was tipped out and counted. A row of discarded white plastic cups lined the edge of the stage, forlorn as failed candidates. Little groups of SDLP wives sat together against the walls, while the men conferred together on the floor. Republicans with calculators and sharp minds kept a running tally, analysing current and previous performances.

The 4pm news revealed that Derry was the last centre in the North still counting first preference votes. A mike set up on the caused shortlived excitement then disappointment as the count went on and on. Finally, 4:20pm, and the results.

Hume was elected on the first count. No surprise there. But his vote stunned him. Earlier, Hume had said he expected to get three quotas. No wonder the desperate disappointment on his face at 12,581 votes - less than two quotas, and a far cry from the 21,000 predicted. At the pinnacle of his career, delivering the Peace, he'd expected more...

As the SDLP went down to celebrate their victory before the press, Sinn Féin ranks were subdued until people began to look at the actual figures.

SF's percentage of the nationalist vote continues to close the gap with the SDLP. Despite the size of SDLP first preference votes, it depended on Hume. There was a gap of over 8,000 votes between Hume's huge personal vote and their next highest candidate, Mark Durkan. The SDLP were revealed to be a one-person party.

Mitchel McLaughlin's vote came in ahead of three former Mayors. Mary Nelis, a new councillor last year, beat former Mayor Annie Courtney on first preference votes, then Courtney was eliminated and Mary Nelis elected. As the implications of our result dawned on Republicans, a quiet satisfaction spread. If the atmosphere in the Guildhall was different from some of the manic celebrations of previous counts, as more seasoned political campaigners Republicans recognised that our results profoundly shook the opposition.

 

Mid-Ulster now a republican heartland



by Michael Pierse

The methodical and enthusiastic work of Sinn Fein election workers in Mid-Ulster has ensured an increase in the republican vote there and reinforced SF as the largest political party in the area.

Director of Elections, James Glass, and the committed activists have achieved a momentum in the constituency and acclaimed Mid-Ulster Sinn Féin in the minds of many as being the most effective political force on the island.

Despite the gloomy and wholly inaccurate opinion polls, the buzz among SF activists in the area was indomitable. Even on the night before the vote workers put up posters in Magherafelt despite being tailed by a DUP man in a jeep who set about pulling them down. The RUC also followed them about the town and through a nationalist estate overlooked by the hillside home of DUP candidate Willie McCrea.

Beside a DUP polling agent in one of the election booths was an ideal place to get an insight into the political chemistry of the area. However his eager cordiality was quite surprising. Munching a bag of crisps, which he shared with this journalist, the friendly-looking bespectacled man enthusiastically conversed on such mundane issues as the weather, the early low turnout and the Maracycle race from Belfast to Dublin in which his wife was participating. Surprised at his lack of inhibition, I was left to muse that his unionism was more of an inherited tradition than a political belligerence. His affable demeanour was typical of a parochial bible belt man, really unaware of the world outside Ballymena - to which he was off visiting his elderly parents following work in the polling booth, he told me.

However his replacement was of a more aloof and entirely unfriendly nature. His expression turned to disgust as Martin McGuinness entered the booth, although stories abounded of the Willie McCrea's daughter having welcomed Martin with a warm hand of friendship, unaware of his identity and later mortified that she had been in contact with a demonic republican.

Later in the day and contrasting with the quiet of morning polling, the legions of voters, many of them very young, arrived past the heavily armed RUC and seemed to be voting Sinn Féin.

The next day, amid the clammering of canteen cutlery and plates, a continually flowing coffee machine and the sea of crisp shirts and neat ties at the count centre in Omagh, Co Tyrone, candidates sweated it out in the midday heat. The closeness of the meterological depression shrouding the dreamy town was symbolic of the tension on the foreheads of candidates inside. Looking through a glass partition over the counting hall was like glancing into a zoo of diverse political animals. The McCreas maintained a vilgilant observance of the votes coming in for Willie and his hapless second runner Paul McLean while Martin McGuinness strolled about the hall chatting now and then with SF Vice President Pat Doherty through a large net separating the Mid-Ulster and West Tyrone counts.

As the counts dragged on it was increasingly apparent that SF's poll-topping performance had clearly delivered three seats for the party. Pending a formal announcement some attentions turned to the England vs Colombia World Cup match. Republicans, media and other party workers assembled in front of a TV, many anticipating a shock defeat for the old enemy (not Willie McCrea), but alas it was not to be. One English journalist cried a lone yelp of joy at their first goal. ``Well it's nice to see us winning something, considering we're losing everything else at the minute,'' including their grip on Ireland, he conceded.

The long awaited announcement of the results of the Mid-Ulster vote gave rise to the exuberant cheering of republicans. Willie McCrea hastily left the hall, unprepared to mount a platform with Sinn Féin, dancing about while shouting that he had ``topped the poll'' - oblivious to the fact that SF had outpolled his party by almost 10,000 votes. His running mate, Paul McLean, must have felt devastated at his 307 first preference votes. Rather than managing the DUP vote and giving his second-runner a reasonable share of first preferences, he chose to maximise his own vote. The SDLP candidate Denis Haughey, his eyes bulging, teeth clenched and with a heart rate that inflated the veins on his neck, described the waving of the Irish flag as ``tribalist'',''triumphalist'' and a hindrance to reconciliation.

In a function following the event, successful SF candidate John Kelly passionately thanked the election workers present and reminded people that he was their ``servant'' not their leader. The young band playing at the function also paid credit to the tireless work of local activist and Director of Publicity, Paul Henry, who modestly refused to join in on a ballad - worthy of any founding father of republicanism - that they had written about him.

It was strong, steady and undeterred activism on the part of many local people that created a dynamic which has propelled republicanism to the top of the political scale in Mid-Ulster and will undoubtedly continue to further maximise support for the republican analysis there.

 

The steady march of SF in Newry/Armagh



By Brian Campbell

At 11am on Friday, two hours after counting had begun, Seamus Mallon briefly wandered into the Banbridge count centre, then went out to speak to Radio Ulster.

``This constituency has now become the cockpit of the fight between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. People who have written the SDLP off will get a surprise. We will take three seats, Sinn Fein will get one and the DUP and UUP will get one each,'' he predicted. ``In this election, SDLP voters operated the PR system like clockwork.''

I had been watching the Newry and Armagh count since 9am and Mallon's comments were astonishing. The SDLP had no chance of three seats, partly because they didn't operate the PR system and partly because they didn't get enough votes. They had two and a half quotas but Mallon got almost two of those.

Sinn Fein, on the other hand, played the PR system to perfection. So well, in fact, that even by 2am on Saturday, they didn't know which of their three candidates would take the two seats. There were just 65 votes covering all three. In the end Davy Hyland was eliminated. If he had got 28 more votes, Conor Murphy would have lost out. It was that close.

When it comes to vote management, Sinn Fein in Newry and Armagh take top prize but it doesn't do anything for their candidates' nerves. In the early hours of Saturday the fifteen SF activists at the count hugged and shook hands. It was a tough moment for Davy and his wife Bronagh.

Then Davy's votes were transferred. Vote after vote after vote went to his running mates. Seamus Mallon was there to see the clockwork distribution and Pat McNamee and Conor Murphy elected. The SDLP's second seat was the last of the six declared.

The count ended at 4am and the Sinn Fein activists drove home in the brightening dawn. Mission accomplished: two seats, increased vote.

Newry and Armagh perfectly represents the changing face of Six County elections. Less than fifteen years ago it was a Unionist seat. From Armagh to Loughgall to Markethill to Bessbrook to Newtownhamilton, Unionist voters kept it like that. By the mid-eighties, the SDLP had edged in front. Today it is two thirds nationalist/republican with Sinn Fein on a steady rise. In Newry and South Armagh, Sinn Fein is the largest party. And now Pat McNamee has built an electoral base in the north of the constituency.

As with other areas, that success is built on dedicated activists. No other party is on the ground the way Sinn Fein is. I was in Newry on election day, along with over one hundred election workers. And everyone was busy: staffing caravans, working as polling agents, giving out leaflets, delivering food to the workers and ferrying voters to the polling stations.

And they know their voters. How else, after seventeen hours and eight counts, could they keep their three candidates within a few dozen votes of each other? And how else could their voters transfer with such precision to bring in two seats?

Next time, with more hard work around Sinn Fein policies, Davy Hyland won't be disappointed. And Seamus Mallon won't be making predictions.

 

At last - a victorious homecoming



By PT O'Hare

Smoke filled the air from numerous bonfires, children squealed, cars were forced to stop by residents blocking the road and everywhere were the flags and posters that demarcate the political landscape. Cameras moved forward to record the action as the temperature and tensions rose but it wasn't the Garvaghy or Ormeau Roads, it was the homecoming of West Tyrone's adopted son, Donegal man and Sinn Fein's Vice President Pat Doherty, to his native Gortnabrade.

Locals noted it was Upper Gortnabrade as opposed to Lower Gortnabrade. But parochial political difficulties aside there was nothing going to stop the people of Donegal celebrating in style Doherty's Assembly victory.

To his suprise and obvious delight a huge convoy of cars with sirens, music blaring and draped in numerous tricolours awaited his arrival in Strabane for the last leg of his victorious campaign trail. It is the first victory in ten outings but as was noted during the long often torturous two day count in Omagh Leisure Centre, he has a long, long way to catch up on Francie Donnelly of the Workers Party who has lost more deposits than he has fingers and toes to count them on.

With the exclusion for the first time of media from the counting rooms, a very negative step in terms of entertainment alone, all and sundry were cooped up in a stifling canteen/TV studio. This guaranteed that Willie McCrea will both dance and sing. He dances round politically hostile tables loaded with republican quiche and the ubiquitous and incessent mobile phones. Everytime one rang it was like the Gunfight at the OK Coral as electioneers with lightning reflexes went to their hip to cancel the embarrassingly corny versions of the Marseillaise or Hi Ho Silver.

Funny when you're drunk but not when you're trying to look like a Republican Growler in front of the DUP's wimpy bigots.

While Willie was doing his dance Sinn Fein's election team were doing a complete and as it transpired very accurate tally of the votes from Fermanagh/South Tyrone, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster. Martin McGuinness, John Kelly and Francie Molloy's combined vote was within a dozen of the Westminster result and in West Tyrone the estimated tally was an amazing close eight short of the actual total of 16,000. With it Sinn Fein absolutely lay claim to the seat taking it back from the erstwhile Offical Unionist Willie Thompson. Michelle Gildernew refused initial congratulation in spite of a massive and deserved 30% increase in her vote until it was official, having been pipped at the post on her last outting.

Barry McElduff with typical aplomb and astuteness was convinced from an early stage that their canvass had been accurately recorded so he passed around a copy of ``The Little Book of Calm'' to eager readers.

As on long journeys, strange friendships were made. Jim Dixon of the UK Unionists confided in a Shinner that he had two houses in the Canaries and it was much more conducive to his condition. ``I'm not a politician, why would I want to go up to Stormont and watch them boys argue,'' he added. Maybe you should have told that to the four thousand people who wasted their vote on you before you stood.

The RUC tried to foment trouble with snide remarks and provocative behaviour but nothing could alter the professional focus of, and it can't be repeated often enough, the Sinn Fein election strategists. Once they got over the actual number crunching they moved quickly onto what Ministry each should have given that Gerry Adams claimed Silly Walks. The Shinners were momentarily dismayed as they had in an act of international solidarity (we believe you!) supported Colombia against England. The live game was watched by the media only.

Then real politics and some would say clientelism took a final grip on Sunday as celebrations ended and Derry moved into the Ulster Final against Donegal. Who was the best source of tickets, McGuinness or Doherty? Could they possibly sit together, would there be compromise, would a joint statement be issued, would the losers be invited to the winners' party and if so did they have to bring their own drink? Crucial questions.

Sinn Féin and nationalism were on the rise. The inevitability was written all over the faces of the RUC and the narrow minded bigots. The road there was very much like that from Lower Gortnabrade to Upper Gortnabrade, full of twists, memories, potholes, steep hills and sharp turns but there's a warm welcome from kith and kin at the end and a spectacular view of the future of a united island. It is a view Pat Doherty enjoys more than anything and why wouldn't he?

 

RUC accused of harassing voters



Annie Armstrong, Sinn Fein's director of elections, has slammed RUC harassment and intimidation of voters in Nationalist areas on polling day.

In Newry voters and the party's election workers were photographed by the RUC as they entered a Sinn Fein tally station.

In the lower Ormeau district of south Belfast the RUC verbally abused people going in to cast their vote. Similar cases of intimidation occurred in Tyrone and other areas across the north.

``I have already made a formal complaint to the Chief Electoral Officer Pat Bradley,'' said Armstrong. ``This type of intimidation is a very serious and worrying trend which has been allowed to continue from election to election. It is designed to keep nationalist voters away from the poll. I am calling on Mo Mowlam to immediately remove the heavy and provocative RUC and British Army patrols from nationalist areas and from the immediate vicinity of polling stations to allow voters the freedom to express their democratic right.''

 

The polls! The polls!




Brian Campbell has the hump over opinion polls

Republicans are quite rightly annoyed over election opinion polls. In particular, two polls commissioned by the Irish Times seriously under-represented Sinn Fein's support.

The first, ten days before election day, gave Sinn Fein 10% and the SDLP 25%. No republican gave it the slightest credibility and neither did a handful of serious political commentators but that didn't stop incessant reports that the SDLP's day had come and this was not to be Sinn Fein's election. It helped feed a perception that the SDLP could end up as the largest party.

A quick look at the small print confirmed the poll's dubious - and possibly deliberately misleading - nature. It was a telephone poll conducted, it was later reported, partly by people with English accents. Now, if someone phoned me out of the blue and asked me who I intended to vote for I would say Alliance, or the Women's Coalition, or the SDLP. I'm not going to say Sinn Fein, especially after years of sometimes murderous attacks on Sinn Fein members and supporters. That's why polls in the Six Counties always underestimate SF strength.

Besides that, telephone polls are weighted against parties which attract working class support because fewer working class than middle class people own phones.

No wonder it gave Sinn Fein support at 10%.

The second major poll was the RTE/Irish Times exit poll. RTE's Prime Time had conducted a similar poll for the referendum and the result was very accurate. They thought they could work the same magic. They interviewed 2,400 voters in all 18 constituencies and announced the result when the polling stations closed at 10.00pm on Thursday. It gave Sinn Fein 13%. Immediately the pundits on Prime Time and the headline writers in all the daily newspapers in Ireland went into action. With some minor caveats buried deep in the analysis, the poll was treated as fact.

I spoke to Sinn Fein activists on Friday morning. Were they worried about the 13% prediction? No, not a bit. One of them told me: ``Sinn Fein are the experts here, not the pollsters. If our support was down to 13%, we'd know about it. Every indication says we'll be well up.'' And so it proved. Sinn Fein ended up with 17.6%, their highest ever.

One other theory for the low poll figures was put forward by Orange Order supporter (and avid An Phoblacht reader) Ruth Dudley Edwards in her column in the Irish Times. She reckons the gap between polls and reality is made up of fraudulent votes. In other words, a whopping 4.6% (37,000) or 7.6% (61,000) of the SF total are stolen votes. That is a theory which even Alex Attwood at his most deluded wouldn't come up with.

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An Phoblacht
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