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24 April 2003 Edition

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Newry & Armagh predicts three seats

It was another of those occasions in the Newry and Armagh constituency when bold predictions were made about a forthcoming election. An audience of over 500 packed into the largest room in Newry's Canal Court Hotel on Thursday 17 April heard that Sinn Féin intends to field three candidates and take three Assembly seats, up from the two they currently hold.

It would be a spectacular triumph to see Assembly member Conor Murphy, Councillor Patricia O'Rawe and Councillor Davy Hyland elected, but the upbeat mood among the activists and supporters suggests that the steady advance of the party in the constituency will continue on 29 May.

That advance has been relentless. On the morning of the last Assembly election count, the SDLP's Seamus Mallon told the media that Sinn Féin would get one seat, the SDLP and unionists two each, with the final seat a dogfight between the SDLP and the unionists. As the votes were counted, he was shocked to see the support for Sinn Féin, with Conor Murphy and Pat McNamee elected and Davy Hyland polling well. He was more shocked when Conor Murphy ran him close at the last Westminister election and dismayed to see Sinn Féin become the biggest party in Newry and Armagh in the local elections.

Gerry Adams, launching the three candidates, noted the growing support in the constituency. It is down to the "hard work, commitment and dedication" of the local candidates and activists, he said, and he gave special praise to Pat McNamee, who is standing down this time round. But support is also rising because "the momentum of change is unstoppable. It can be delayed. That is true. But the only question is the timetable. Change cannot be stopped as long as we keep our eyes on the prize, as long as we are able to take risks for peace," he said.

The themes of hard work, commitment and a desire for change were taken up by the three candidates. Davy Hyland - who has topped the poll in Newry in each of the last three council elections - spoke of the work done in Newry to reinstate the two thousand voters removed from the electoral register. "We were the only party present at the electoral court and we are the only party working to ensure that people have their democratic right to vote," he said. "People are recognising that we have the politics, the policies and the people to bring about change in this society."

Conor Murphy, the leader of the Sinn Féin group in the Assembly, urged the party activists to pull out all the stops in the weeks ahead. "This is a crucial election at a crucial time," he said. "We are putting in the effort because we believe in the republican ideal and we believe that we are on the road to achieving it. Elections are a crucial measure of our progress towards our goal and it cannot be stressed enough the advances we can make if we are returned as the largest nationalist party."

Patricia O'Rawe, who was an aide to Pat McNamee before becoming a councillor on Armagh City Council, spoke of the radical nature of Sinn Féin's policies and, in particular, the radical heart of the equality agenda. "We mean what we say. We intend to change the face of Irish politics throughout this island and we will do it by adding to our political strength."

It was a confident start to the campaign with the standing-room-only atmosphere giving it a special charge of urgency. Commentators may talk about a mood of apathy around this election - but no one has told republicans in Newry and Armagh.
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