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28 September 2000 Edition

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Unionism turns on itself

BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN

What do you get when you hold an election and offer the electorate two unionist candidates opposed to the Good Friday Agreement? First you turn off the majority of voters from actually showing up and casting their vote on the day. Second you create a bizarre situation where the most vociferous, most fundamental candidate wins, albeit by a narrow margin.

     
The DUP might have won the seat, but they have clearly failed to win the vast majority of voters, in what is a unionist heartland, over to their side of the argument
The Democratic Unionist's Willie McCrea squeezed past the Ulster Unionist's David Burnside by 822 votes in last Thursday's South Antrim by-election. Turnout was only 43% of the electorate.

McCrea and the DUP were ecstatic. There were few plaudit's they were not willing to claim as a result of the election. Trimble should resign, the DUP were now leading the unionist community and so on. Maybe these things will come to pass but last Thursday's by-election was not really a conclusive survey on any of these things. This was not Fermanagh South Tyrone in 1981, West Belfast in 1983 or Cavan Monaghan in 1997.

In reality the real challenge to the UUP and DUP was not the symbolic winning of a Westminster seat, it was their inability to mobilise what is largely a unionist electorate to actually come out and make a choice. This both sides patently failed to do. It is interesting to note that Sinn Féin were the only party in this constituency to actually bring out more voters in 2000 than they did in 1997. The 2,611 votes and 8.54% of the total poll won by Martin Meehan was overlooked by a media intent on raking over yet another crisis in unionism.

Here too there was plenty of content as both the DUP and UUP attempted to use the election, for varying political ends. The DUP were the self-proclaimed moral victors. The UUP had a more complex agenda. The election result was proof that the Patten proposals on policing, even in their watered-down form, were a step too far for unionism.

Now the UUP faces into its annual conference and the South Antrim by election is being used here also as a means to set the agenda for the conference. The options presented so far are that a leadership challenge could be mounted against Trimble or the more likely scenario that the delegates could pass a series of motions that will in the medium term unhinge the Good Friday Agreement.

This week David Trimble has been doing the rounds at the annual British Labour Party conference. His media interviews and public statements have all been on the line that Patten must be changed and that the agreement on demilitarisation hammered out by his party, Sinn Féin and the two governments must be renegotiated.

Here is the core of the problem facing Trimble and unionism generally. If these issues are really top of his political agenda why was he not openly campaigning on them in South Antrim rather than the whispering, undermining campaign that was run. Everybody knows that David Burnside is openly opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, yet in this election the voters were asked to endorse him in as being part of a party that is participating, though reluctantly so, in a partnership with nationalists and the Dublin Government.

McCrea's anti agreement campaign was much more clearly focused, yet he only managed a few hundred votes more than Burnside. Together they only succeeded in gaining 22,380 votes. One wonders what were the thoughts on the minds of the 40,000 plus voters who choose not to turn out on the day.

The DUP had campaigned on the basis that this election was a referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. They might have won the seat but they have clearly failed to win the vast majority of voters, in what is a unionist heartland, over to their side of the argument.

It is also worth noting that it was this constituency along with Upper Bann in 1970, that became the focus of much similar political debate to that of today. This followed the resignation of two sitting Stormont MPs who had been opposed to then Six County Prime Minister, James Chichester Clark's piecemeal reforms.

Ian Paisley was elected in Upper Bann as a Protestant Unionist, while the deputy leader of his party William Beattie was elected in South Antrim.

Chichester Clark hung on as Ulster Unionist leader for nearly a year. He, like many unionist leaders before and after him, was not willing to either lobby and negotiate with his own party or deliver a real agenda of reform.

James Molyneaux was elected as the Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim in 1970, holding the seat until he moved to Upper Bann in 1983. He became the effective UUP leader in 1974 and like Chichester Clark, Faulkner and West, was unwilling to actually lead the unionist community other than along the path of the same old inequitable status quo.

Unionist MPs come and go in South Antrim while the electorate is now really waiting for someone to lead them. Willie McCrea is not that person. Nor would David Burnside be able to fill that role. Maybe that's why last week the majority of unionists stayed at home, sadly watching Unionism turn inward on itself - a demented dog chasing its own tail.
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