7 June 2001 Edition
Adams predicts major gains
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
Sinn Féin will be the ``story of this election'', the party's president, Gerry Adams, told An Phoblacht as we went to print on the eve of the elections in the Six Counties and the Nice Treaty referendum south of the border.
Adams said that he believes a positive electoral outcome for Sinn Féin will have a significant impact on negotiations to break the impasse in the peace process. These negotiations will follow in the immediate aftermath of the election.
The Sinn Féin leader predicted that the party will add an extra MP, Pat Doherty in West Tyrone, to their gains, along with a massive increase in their representation on local councils.
``I believe that we are going to win in West Tyrone and secure an increase of one third on our council representation,'' he said. Sinn Féin currently holds 74 council seats across the Six Counties, but will increase this to a ``nice round figure'' of 100 councillors, Adams said, ``and we could go beyond that''.
Huge electoral increases across the Six Counties are expected for Sinn Féin. ``Watch for North Belfast, Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Newry/South Armagh,'' he added.
The outcome at the polls will have a decisive impact, not only on the negotiations that will follow them, but also on Sinn Féin's support in the 26 Counties. ``The growth of Sinn Féin will have a roll-on effect when the Taoiseach calls the elections in the South.''
The immediate focus of the Sinn Féin team, however, will be on the negotiations between the parties and the British and Dublin governments. Adams said he is mindful of the impact of a strong Labour mandate in Britain.
``I would like to think that Blair's increased mandate will allow him to face down the rejectionists within his own establishment.''
Echoing Martin McGuinness's comment last week that there is enough leadership and wisdom amongst the political parties to forge beyond the current impasse, Adams added that David Trimble cannot be afforded all the blame.
``A lot of it is down to Tony Blair to sort these matters out. We can't really blame David Trimble. He is trying to do his best for his very narrow electorate. Blair must make clear that the kind of ultimatums and threats we've been seeing from unionism are unacceptable.''
The first test of the post-election political landscape will be in ten or eleven days' time when negotiations resume. The recent revelations of further inspections of IRA arms dumps will bolster these negotiations, Adams said.
``I think that the IRA created what could be, and should be, a positive context for those negotations. The IRA kept their commitments, according to the inspectors.''
The issues of demilitarisation and policing are matters entirely within the remit of the British government, he said. ``They must deliver.''
The Six County elections are of huge significance for Sinn Féin, Adams said. ``For Sinn Féin, it is significant in that we are going to the people with an account of what we have delivered on and asking for a strengthened mandate to continue.
``We have delivered on work with regard to sustaining the peace process, work with regard to radicalising and putting policies in place, work with regard to the social and economic needs of our people. We are building strength for a united Ireland and an end to partition and the Union.''
In the 26 Counties, the `No to Nice' campaign has swayed large chunks of the electorate in recent weeks, according to an Irish Times/MRBI poll.
The treaty is about the creation of a two-tiered, militarised Europe and a democratic deficit in Ireland, Adams said. ``We are only part of a broad constituency which has an alternative view of Ireland and Europe, a vision that is different from the conservative parties' sleeveen approach to Europe,'' he said.
Let's make history
The focus has been on the Westminster election but in the north of Ireland the local government election is the one to watch, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams told a press conference in Belfast this week. The conference, held in the Tom Williams lounge at the Roddy McCorley Club, was organised to launch the party's local government manifesto, `Changing the face of local government'.
Sinn Féin is standing 153 candidates in the local government elections, an increase of 57 on the last election. As an all-Ireland party, Sinn Féin has elected representatives across the island, including 62 councillors in the 26 Counties.
Sinn Féin expects to increase its percentage of the vote by 10%, said Adams, perhaps even 15%. As for the number of candidates successfully elected, ``a hundred would be a nice round figure.
``Ever since Alex Maskey was elected to Belfast City Council in 1983, Sinn Féin has been changing the face of local government,'' said Adams. ``Alex led the way in confronting unionist bigotry and discrimination in Belfast City Hall.
``Eighteen years on, Sinn Féin is still changing the face of Local Government. We are standing more candidates than ever before and in more areas than ever before, underlining the growth of Sinn Féin in recent years.''
Adams highlighted the scope of Sinn Féin representation on both sides of the border and those representatives' ability to secure positions at all levels within local government structure.
``In the past four years we have led the way in many local authorities on the island - in Derry and Belfast, Leitrim and Cavan, Fermanagh and Strabane along with Newry, Sligo and Monaghan.
``In the past year, Sean MacManus has served as the Chairperson of Sligo Council, Micheal McColreavy in Leitrim, Charlie McHugh in Strabane, Brian McKenna in Monaghan, Geraldine Cassidy in Fermanagh and Cathal Crumley as Mayor of Derry.''
Adams described Sinn Féin as the only party with an all-Ireland vision and the only party committed to building strategic partnerships across Ireland and so end the economic, social and cultural peripheralism of border counties.
As the manifesto points out, he said, Sinn Féin has demonstrated leadership and determination. ``We have been dynamic and have met all of the challenges placed in front of us. We will not be diverted from demanding equality and justice. We will continue to be a source of confidence and strength, replacing conflict and division with peace and opportunity.''
Adams said that republicans viewed negotiations as part of the struggle. ``After this election there will be crucial negotiations on the key issues of policing, demilitarisation and equality and human rights,'' he said.
``If these negotiations are to advance the process then Sinn Féin has to go back to the negotiating table with an increased mandate. Let's make history.''
Scientific Sinn Féin in Newry and Armagh
On a bleak, wet Thursday night last week I trailed after Conor Murphy and Davy Hyland as they canvassed the Altnaveigh Park area of the town.
I had intended to do a similar job to that I had recently attempted in West Tyrone with Pat Doherty - speak with the people being canvassed to guage their reactions to Sinn Fein, the candidate and our chances in the coming elections. Well, that was the plan.
By the time you're reading this, Conor Murphy will have done really well in Newry and Armagh, but the key to his success is the professional organisation that has been built up in the constituency
By the time you read this, the elections in the Six Counties - both Westminster and local, will be over bar the counting. Davy Hyland looks a shoe-in for the council and Conor Murphy will at the very least have done extremely well against Seamus Mallon in the Westminster poll.
As Conor and Davy went from door to door there was an important man following close behind them. Brian Campbell wandered discreetly behind the two candidates (well, as discreet as he could be with a scruffy Derrig in tow). Armed with a clipboard, he ticked off names of identified ``Green voters''. This was the third canvass of the area.
Conor Murphy presses the flesh on a canvass with fellow Westminster candidates Michelle Gildernew, Gerry Kelly, Pat Doherty and Gerry Adams
Brain was armed with a list that was a hybrid voters roll/canvass form. This was the printout of a specially designed computer programme for the Sinn Féin campaign team in the area.
Like all computer systems, if its ``Garbage in'' then it will be ``Garbage out''. Here it is quality information from areas that have already been canvassed three times. You would need to be in your own wee cave in Newry and Armagh not to have met Conor Murphy and the council candidate for where your cave is situated.
For that evening, I was witnessing as slick an electoral machine as exists on this island going door to door about its business.
Our first gig was in a new development - full of young families whose parents still lived in Newry itself. This was one of the last Housing Executive developments. These abodes were of a different order than the Lifestyle Supplement haciendas I had trailed around after Pat Doc on my previous story.
As doors were answered, Conor and Davy handed over literature and chatted with the people. The big man at my side noted anything down that came up as a concern or a question about where to go on polling day.
This was no false listening exercise. After the previous canvasses of the area, the Sinn Féin campaign team had drawn up a list of the top 20 issues that had emerged on the doorstep. This was turned into a newssheet, ``Tairseach/Threshold''. Top of the list was rates and councillors' expenses, then health, then policing, then demilitarisation and so on.
On the back page of this wee blatt was a telling balance sheet of which councillors took the highest expenses out of Newry and Mourne council. Any guesses for top dog? Yup - no prizes. The local SDLP chap with over 16k. The average spending on ``conferences'' within the four-year period was SDLP - £9,750 per councillor, Sinn Féin - £2,883 per councillor. Value for money?
The big issues in the Westminster election that seemed local to this constituency was the dramatic economic decline of Armagh city - I was shocked as I drove through. It had been a few years since I had been there. The place is falling down, with rows of boarded up and dilapidated commercial premises.
The other issue, locally, is the ``Fee factor''. The local SDLP man was the heir apparent to Seamus Mallon, but even SDLP-minded farmers have been incensed by his crass comments about the farming community's culpability in the Foot and Mouth epidemic. The SDLP camp has even been forced to distance Mallon from the party locally.
The SDLP have little in terms of campaign workers and have been forced to hire a PR firm from the south to put up posters and deliver election material. I suppose hiring a PR firm from the South is the nearest they will ever be to being an all-Ireland outfit!
Brian Campbell explained to me that I was witnessing a process that was three years old. ``Two weeks after the Assembly elections in 1998, we sat down and plotted this course,'' he told me.
At that point, Sinn Fein was only 4,500 votes behind Mallon. This was the closest ever. Sinn Féin got two Assembly members in the areas covering the Westminster constituency that Conor Murphy is now fighting. Conor and Pat McNamee are those Assembly members; Davy Hyland missed being the third by only 60 votes.
Brian told me that a plan was drawn up to establish a stronger organisation on the ground a fortnight after those votes were counted. A publicity department was set up locally; people were trained in welfare rights and in dealing with the public in a professional manner.
``We now have 19 cumainn in the constituency - three years ago we had 15''.
In providing this constituency service in terms of advice and advocacy work, the party was able to build up its political intelligence profile on the constituency. The Assembly money was used to set up offices in Camlough and Armagh. Then the party, from its own resources, opened new offices in Keady, Crossmaglen and Newry.
The SDLP, by contrast, have a full-time office in Newry (donated by a local businessman) and a part-time office recently opened in Armagh. They have a defeated, washed out look about them. They are all but invisible on the ground.
The campaign they have fought has been fought for them by a friendly media, but they cannot match us on the ground; in the quality of our candidates or in the relevance of our message to the new Ireland we are building.
Brian told me that on election day ``hundreds'' (yes, hundreds) of cars will go out and lift the Sinn Féin votes. He described a system that would get whittled down as polling day wore on. In the final few hours, a fleet of Sinnféinmobiles will scour designated areas, knocking on doors like demented Mormons.
To get the Brits out we have to get the vote out.
By the time you're reading this, Conor Murphy will have done really well in Newry and Armagh. He's a star for sure, but my man of the match is the guy in the middle of the park with the clipboard.
Sinn Féin rolling to victory
As the electorate go to the polls, MICHAEL PIERSE takes a look at some of the constituencies in which Sinn Féin is on a roll.
In four Westminster constituencies, a well-oiled Sinn Féin machine is looking to take seats, with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness shoe-ins, while Pat Doherty looks to have seen off a late challenge from Bríd Rodgers and Michelle Gildernew is copnfident in Fermanagh and South Tyrone after an excellent campaign. Elsewhere, the party is expected to make significant gains. Sinn Féin is likely to take 100 seats at local council level, a giant electoral leap from the 74 seats currently held.
West Tyrone, the Westminster constituency that has magnetised more media attention than anywhere else, will probably prove the most entertaining of counts also.
Pat Doherty of Sinn Féin's vote has rose consistently in recent years, along with that of the the party's local election candidates on the ground. The SDLP ploy of introducing Brid Rodgers, the high-profile SDLP Minister for Agriculture, had been designed to boost the party's waning fortunes in the West. However, a ``whinge campaign'' is how Pat Doherty has described Rodger's antics over recent weeks.
The SDLP have ladened their efforts in the area with allegations of having been abused and insulted at the doorsteps. While they claimed they were attacked by residents in one estate hurling eggs, the accusation that this was organised by Sinn Féin conveyed the depths of SDLP desperation.
``The assumption that every time something happens is down to Sinn Féin is a nonsense,'' Pat Doherty said. ``Our workers are too busy to be involved with anything like throwing stones.''
South Down SDLP have also made allegations. This time they are claiming that republicans are `intimidating' elderly people into voting for Sinn Féin. Sounds like the `Stoops' are bending over backwards to explain away impending electoral losses.
Doherty said that the SDLP are buckling under the pressure of a strong, methodical Sinn Féin electoral machine. ``If you can't stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen,'' he advised.
The Sinn Féin candidate can well afford to be assured - Sinn Féin in the area has seen an extraordinary growth in support in recent times. In the 1998 Assembly elections, the party grew to 9 percentage points ahead of the SDLP and 1 per cent ahead of the combined UUP and DUP vote. Also on the SF side is the 3 per cent first-time vote in the area, with the party showing a trend in picking up younger voters. Watch this space.
Twenty years ago, hunger striker Bobby Sands was made an MP by the electorate of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, a huge symbol of defiance that will resonate again in today's election.
Sinn Féin's candidate, Michelle Gildernew, is seeking to outpoll the unionist and SDLP parties in the area, but also the patriarchy of Westminster that has seen the exclusion of Irish women candidates for over 30 years. The last woman to be elected MP in the Six Counties was Bernadette Devlin, all the way back in 1970.
Gildernew now has an odds-on chance of wrestling the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat back following the resignation of sitting UUP MP, Ken Maginnis.
Speaking to An Phoblacht, Gildernew said that the party is predicting an ``incredible'' increase in support. ``We know that we're going to elect the first republican MP in the area since Bobby Sands and the first female MP from the Six Counties since Bernadette Devlin,'' she said.
Sinn Féin believes it will increase its number of councillors from six to nine in Fermanagh and from two to five or six in South Tyrone. ``The writing's on the wall,'' Gildernew said. ``The response we're getting on the doors is very encouraging.''
Nationalists and republicans in the area have long been frustrated at misrepresentation and neglect from local unionist politicians. In the 1998 Assembly elections that frustration transformed into a 5.3 per cent Sinn Féin lead on the SDLP, and a lead of 2.2 per cent on the UUP. That growth set in train the vital confidence factor which points the way towards a Sinn Féin seat.
I predict that the SDLP's Tommy Gallagher will well and truly have egg on his face the morning after this election.
You can put the mortgage on this one. Well, you could if anyone was taking bets. Martin McGuinness's and Sinn Féin's vote in the Mid Ulster constituency is rock solid and likely to undergo further growth this week.
A marginal victory for the Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator in 1997 was followed by a 40 per cent vote for the party in the following year's Assembly elections, five per cent ahead of the combined forces of unionism. Eilís, the daughter of SDLP Assembly member for the area, Denis Haughey, will be well outpolled.
McGuinness' performance as Minister for Education will bolster not only his profile, but that of Sinn Féin's local election candidates. Throughout the constituency, the party expect to gain five or six council seats, two of these on Magherafelt District Council.
Standing for Magherafelt Council is local Sinn Féin Assembly Member, John Kelly. He has the unenviable task of standing also for the Westminster constitency of North Anrtim. Surprisingly, Kelly is buoyed by his canvassing in Antrim. ``Ballymena was very encouraging and there is a great potential for (Sinn Féin) growth there,'' he told An Phoblacht. ``Nationalists there are getting a lot of heart from our presence in this campaign.''
While loyalists took down the Sinn Féin posters in the area, several hours after they were erected, Kelly said he felt confident that unprecedented numbers will vote Sinn Féin.
An area that Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams, described as ``one to watch'' this week. While Séamus Mallon of the SDLP is expected to maintain his Westminster seat here, Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy will at the very least confirm his position as MP in waiting.
Between 1997 and 1998, the SDLP vote dropped by eight per cent, with Sinn Féin gaining five per cent. That was three years ago, and the swing is set to leave Mallon and his supporters with a bad hangover this weekend. An embarrassment for Mallon will be a body blow for the SDLP.
``We're getting very positive feedback,'' Conor Murphy tells An Phoblacht as we go to print. But will there be a shock on the cards for the SDLP? ``I think so; I think they are beginning to become aware of the swing to Sinn Féin. But for them it might be a case of too little, too late.''
Sinn Féin is aiming to be largest party on Newry and Mourne District Council and double its representation on Armagh District Council, Murphy said. The party also aims to tip the balance in Armagh Council from a unionist majority to a majority of nationalist and republican councillors.
Whoever Sinn Féin gets elected this weekend, it is certain the party will make impressive gains and set the stage for further electoral success, both north and south.
Election workers threatened
Two Sinn Féin election workers feared for their safety when they were subjected to sectarian abuse by loyalists in Mullaghglass, Co Antrim. The incident took place on Friday 1 June, when the electoral workers were intimidated into leaving by a group of loyalists who called for reinforcements on a mobile phone. Over 500 Sinn Féin electoral posters have also been removed from the area.
Last week, Jeffrey Donaldson accused Sinn Fein of stirring up trouble by placing an election poster in the grounds of Dunmurray Orange Hall. Councillor Butler dismissed the accusation. ``We clearly stated last week that our posters shouldn't have been placed there and we had nothing to do with it,'' said Butler, ``but this isolated incident pales into insignificance compared to the persistant intimidation of our workers and the removal of Sinn Féin posters by unionist and loyalist bully boys.''
Butler also told An Phoblacht that recent video footage recorded by a local man has shown the ease with which loyalists can operate in Dunmurry.
Said Butler: ``Last weekend a resident videotaped gangs of loyalists in the area as they roamed about with pickaxe handles and cudgels. The loyalists were out to cause trouble and yet the RUC, in a two-Land Rover patrol, drove past them and failed to intervene. When challenged about this the RUC claimed they only had a patrol car with two people in it on duty at the time.''
Butler said the UDA has been behind a campaign of mass intimidation against nationalists over the years in which residents and their homes have been attacked. ``Catholic businesses have also been targeted to such a degree that there is only one Catholic business left in the village.''
The resident who taped the loyalist activity and who has lived in the area for 20 years told the media: ``The people of this area are fed up with the constant intimidation in an area that is devoid of any proper policing. Many of the houses in Dunmurray have panic buttons and cameras installed. As well as that parents living here with teenage children are afraid to let them out. Every week a Catholic teenager is attacked in this area and it is only a matter of time before someone is killed.''
``The situation locally has become untenable,'' says Paul Butler. ``The campaign of orchestrated attacks on Catholics in Dunmurray is down to a very heavy UDA presence in the area. The RUC are aware of this but have done nothing to stop it.''
Sinn Féin candidate attacked
A mob of loyalists attempted to kill Sinn Fein candidate Sean Montgomery and Sinn Féin workers in the Carryduff area on Sunday 3 June. Montgomery and four election workers were putting up election posters at the Carryduff shopping centre when they were attacked by a group of loyalists hurling stones and bottles and shouting UDA slogans.
The election team were putting up posters further down the road when a large number of loyalists, who appeared to be armed, pursued their car and attempted to ram it several times.
``This attack was clearly orchestrated by the UDA in an attempt to intimidate Sinn Féin from standing in the area,'' said Montgomery. ``This is a throwback to the early days of Sinn Féin standing in Belfast Council, but we will not be deterred in Castlereagh.''
Sinn Fein candidate for Castlereagh Sean Hayes has told loyalists to get used to the idea of Sinn Féin being there. The party's new constituency office on the Lower Armeau Road opened on Tuesday, 29 May. ``We will bring the equality agenda into Castlereagh and we will make sure the DUP-controlled council hears the voice of nationalism in its next term,'' said Hayes.
Meanwhile, East Derry SDLP Assembly member John Dallat was shocked to discover that a ``Please Shoot John Dallat'' site has been posted on the Internet by loyalist supporters. They targeted him after he called on the British Home Secretary, Jack Straw to set up a task force to combat sites that support groups like the UVF, UDA and LVF.