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26 June 2003 Edition

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Politics in the post-democratic era

In light of Sinn Féin's decision to launch a political canvass throughout the North to refocus people's minds on the decision by the British government to cancel May's Assembly Election, An Phoblacht's ÁINE Ní BHRIAIN talked to Danny Power, Sinn Féin's Director of Elections, about canvass and what happens next.

Sinn Féin is fed up with electoral manipulation. First the British government scheduled the Assembly elections for 1 May. Then things were moved back to 29 May.

In the interim, the public endured a badly run voter registration campaign - courtesy of the Electoral Office - which led to more than 130,000 eligible voters being excluded from the electoral register, even though they had previously been on it.

There were changes to voter identification requirements. The new rule required voters to produce photographic ID or a Voter Identity Card before they could claim their vote, but the identity cards were not being processed fast enough and there were fears they would not reach the 233,000 people who had requested them in time for polling day.

Voters also had to register as individuals and not as households, another change from previous years, and there were no clinics or arrangements made to inform and assist first time voters, those voters with literacy problems, or those who might need assistance in filling out the required registration forms.

All this was in stark contrast to election procedures in England, Scotland and Wales, where voter turnout had dropped to an alarming 24%. The state went out of its way to encourage more people in those places to vote, while simultaneously making an election in the Six Counties more difficult.

And just when it looked like things might finally get off the ground, Tony Blair made a decision which should have sent shockwaves reverberating around the world - he "postponed" the election now slotted for 29 May, promising to reschedule the democratic process at some point in the future.

He just hasn't said when exactly that will be.

The sheer audacity of the move reveals that in this instance, Blair believes he is answerable to no one. Not only is this another telling indication of the British government's attitude towards progress and democracy in the North, it is also an indictment of the Irish establishment and the international community, because both have remained silent on the matter.

"Legally and constitutionally we should have had an election on 1 May," says Danny Power, Sinn Féin's Director of Elections. "Then that was put back until the 29th. Now the British government is trying to "paint up" the 29th as a moveable feast but it's not, the election has been cancelled. The democratic writ, as determined by liberal parliamentary democracies, is finished."

Power points out that in some minds, this is an appropriate year for such electoral manipulation. After all, this is the 35th anniversary of the Civil Rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon, where people were demanding simple things like one person, one vote.

"Now, we have the universal franchise and nothing to use it for," says Power, "It's like someone asking for a motor car and you give it to them and then tell them they're not allowed to use any roads. So we all have the vote, but we have nothing to vote for. It's an indication of what the will of the people of this country means to the people who are governing it."

Meanwhile, the British government and unionists are looking to blame the IRA for all the brew-ha-ha, but Power points out that this too, is unacceptable.

"It's very clear the British and the unionists want the IRA to be blamed for it," he says. "It's also very clear to anyone who read the text of the recent statements that have come out, that an organisation that wasn't party to, didn't sign up to, and had no input into the Good Friday Agreement is now being asked to be the sole vehicle for the salvation of that agreement. That not only strikes me as hypocrisy, but it also strikes me as a total abdication of political responsibility."

When electoral manipulation via the registration process didn't produce the desired results, the British were forced to move on to phase two of their plan - the cancellation of the election.

It's against this backdrop that Sinn Féin is faced with making a response, and in typical republican fashion, they have chosen to view the current political stalemate as an opportunity. The party is spearheading a political canvass across the North which will actively engage with local people at a local level - on doorsteps - and promote the messages that people would have heard had there been an election campaign.

"The definition of democracy is not the universal franchise but who you vote for," says Power. "It was apparent that not enough people would vote for Trimble and Durkan to make the middle-class alliance - which had run the Assembly for the previous five years - come together. This either meant that Blair had to deal with a radical alternative or introduce something else, and he did. First of all, he introduced legislation that the British hoped would not only impact on Sinn Féin voters, but also those who fell into the lowest social and economic brackets.

"The democratic writ has not been allowed to run its course. When the registration fiasco didn't achieve the desired result, when David Trimble and the British government didn't feel confident about the outcome, the next move was to call off the election.

"We are living in a completely different era in the Six Counties now. We are living in a post-democratic era, and we won't accept that."

DUP mob attacks Sinn Féin representatives

A car carrying Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness and party colleague Cllr Philip McGuigan was attacked by a loyalist mob outside Ballymoney Council Offices on Tuesday afternoon. The mob included at least three DUP Councillors. including prominent Democratic Unionist Party councillor and Chair of the local District Police Partnership Board, John Finlay.

The two Sinn Féin representatives, engaged in the party's political canvas of the Six Counties to refocus people's minds on the decision by the British government to cancel May's Assembly election, were scheduled to meet a number of local groups in Ballymoney Council Offices. On their arrival, however, said McGuinness, "a crowd of around a dozen loyalists had obviously been made aware of my

visit and began to attack my car. Stones and bottles were thrown and the mob kicked and punched the car. Serious damage was caused before we were able to get away.

"Present with the mob were two local DUP Councillors - John Finlay and Ian Stevenson. These individuals have very serious questions to answer about this afternoon's incident. We hear the DUP lecture us on a daily basis about

democracy yet they were involved with a loyalist mob attacking two elected representatives going about their work. They prevented local groups carrying out their business also.

" It will be interesting to note what response this incident receives from the DUP leadership, particularly Ian Paisley, who represents this constituency, and indeed other elected representatives in the area."

An Phoblacht
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