24 April 1997 Edition
Here we go
We have entered the final week in what has been described as the most vital election in the Six Counties since Partition.
At issue is the prospect of a real peace settlement with nationalists and republicans fully represented. Only Sinn Féin can now deliver increased nationalist representation by recapturing West Belfast and Mid-Ulster and laying the republican claim to the new seat of West Tyrone. The party is fighting to win also in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and across all but one of the 18 constituencies.
No-one should be under any illusion as to what the winning of one, two or three seats for Sinn Féin would mean. The British government policy of exclusion of the party would be dealt a bitter blow. A new British government would be confronted with a greatly strengthened republican struggle and a massive nationalist mandate for negotiations and political and constitutional change.
Only the nationalist and republican people of the Six Counties can deliver such an historic result. All the signs are, with a week to go before polling, that they are eager to do so.
Causing a stir West of the Bann
Mícheál MacDonncha joins Sinn Féin leaders on their tour of the constituencies
Martin McGuinness tells of a couple he canvassed in Magherafelt. They came from an SDLP family but this time the family had sat down and decided to vote Sinn Féin. If this is indicative of trends across the constituency then the Derryman is on his way to the new Sinn Féin office in London as an MP
Driving down to Conway Mill on Tuesday morning we pass one of Belfast's new construction sites. It attracts no publicity and will not feature on tourist maps, unless of course it's one for political tourists. This is the massive British army barracks being built on the Springfield Road to replace the crumbling Fort Henry Taggart nearby.
The new base with its perimeter painted in colours some engineer deemed tasteful, dominates the skyline and the surrounding nationalist district. It's a scene that is duplicated in towns we visit later, in Omagh, Dungannon and Cookstown, with their big military bases. And not a word about decommissioning or demilitarisation.
Down in the Mill Sinn Féin's election machine is cranking into gear. Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Pat Doherty, Mitchel Laughlin and Gerry Kelly are assembled and ready for the off on the first day of a `leadership tour' which takes them through all of the Six Counties and most of the Westminster constituencies.
The first stop is Dungannon and in one sense also it is a journey back in time. This is Fermanagh/South Tyrone, the constituency where nationalist voters changed the course of the republican struggle and Irish history when they elected Bobby Sands and then Owen Carron in 1981. The frustration and resentment at the loss of the nationalist seat to Ken Maginnis is still palpable but there is a difference now. The Sinn Féiners are out to win, and with Gerry McHugh as candidate, they're claiming the seat as their own, pointing out to voters the reality of the refusal of the SDLP to enter a pact and the unreality of talk of a nationalist `unity' candidate. Councillor Vincent Kelly garnered 1800 votes for Sinn Féin in Dungannon town in the last local election and they're out to exceed this on 23 May when voters in the Six Countes go to the polls for the second time in three weeks to elect district councils.
There is a reminder also of the sacrifices Tyrone republcans have made as Gerry Adams greets Ellen McDonald, whose son Patrick was killed with his comrade Kevin Murray on IRA active service 23 years ago. The tenth anniversary of the Loughgall ambush in which eight Volunteers died is exactly a week after the May Day election. Councillor Kelly will be remembering the loss of his son Patrick on that day.
From the hilly town of Dungannon, dominated by the communications tower of the British barracks, it's on to Enniskillen. Here Gerry McHugh describes the dynamic of the contest: ``The most effective way people can use their vote is to vote for Sinn Féin as the leading party in this constituency. SDLP voters I've met are prepared to vote Sinn Féin as a protest at the SDLP refusing to discuss an arrangement with us.''
Gerry himself is one of the republican team locked out of talks; he was elected to the Forum last May ahead of SDLP rivals. With his wife Geraldine due to deliver their child soon he has at least one acceptance speech to prepare, and no rest in prospect for a few weeks yet. Here too Sinn Féin is aiming to double its council representation on 23 May.
The West Tyrone constituency has two main towns - Strabane and Omagh and we head now for the latter. The driest spring in years has brought forth blazing yellow furze blossoms and posters of Pat Doherty on hundreds of poles along the roads. The candidate acknowledges that the campaign of all parties in West Tyrone has only begun to take off in the past week. He points to Sinn Féin canvass returns over three weeks which show increasing percentages for both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, with Sinn Féin consistently ahead. The perennial problem of a single unionist candidate and two nationalists exists here also, but it is a new constituency and for republicans the prospect of laying claim to it is spurring efforts.
At the top of the hilly main street of Omagh sits the courthouse, topped by the British royal coat of arms and the Union Jack. Gerry Adams and Pat Doherty field press questions while Martin McGuinness befriends a busker who looks the worse for wear and prompts taunts at Martin about his musical alter ego, Art Garfunkel. But a request by a TV reporter that he be allowed to refer to the Sinn Féin stars as the Spice Boys is firmly rejected. ``Old Spice Boys more like,'' quips somebody.
The pop theme continues at Omagh Bus depot where Adams and Co get mobbed by hundreds of autograph-hunting secondary school students. But it's not all about celebrity. Words of encouragement to the Sinn Féiners from many of the young people reveal an acute awareness of what this election is about.
``We're causing a bit of stir,'' says Barry McElduff, West Tyrone director of elections who arrived in a whirl as we did and departs in a cloud of dust as we leave.
The journey to Cookstown brings us across the centre of Tyrone and into the cockpit of this election - Mid-Ulster. Martin McGuinness exudes confidence: ``We're getting a great reception. The nationalist community knew from the outset that they had an important decision to make in knowing which nationalist horse to back. I'm satisfied that that decision has been made and that I can beat William McCrea and take the seat.''
McGuinness says it's not just about the McCrea factor either. ``There is positive goodwill for Sinn Féin. People are not blaming us for the failure of the peace process, they're blaming John Major and he's our real opponent. At the same time hopes for the peace process have been rekindled by this election.''
He tells of a couple he canvassed in Magherafelt. They came from an SDLP family but this time the family had sat down and decided to vote Sinn Féin. If this is indicative of trends across the constituency then the Derryman is on his way to the new Sinn Féin office in London as an MP.
Our tour ends in Cookstown where the Sinn Féiners get the warmest reception so far today. Gortalowry is a small nationalist estate of 70-odd houses. McGuinness seems at home here and sets a running pace as he raps the doors. Despairing of trying to catch up with the candidate, Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly spot a lad with a ball and have a rough and tumble kickabout, a welcome respite from the electoral round. If history is made next week it will be by the people in little communities like this who will remember the day a few famous faces played football in their street.
As we travel back east across the Bann we remember that still waters run deep and can only guess at the changes which will emerge from the depths of the ballot boxes in seven days time.
Hope and history rhyme in Mid-Ulster
Mick Naughton travels with Martin McGuinness's campaign team
It doesn't take long in Mid-Ulster to pick up the air of confidence among Sinn Féin activists that their man is going to be the constituency's next MP. Martin McGuinness's Mid-Ulster canvass director, Francie Molloy, described the information gleaned on Sinn Fein canvasses as ``very encouraging''
He also revealed that even senior figures within the SDLP have accepted that Sinn Féin is winning in Mid-Ulster. Last Thursday they pulled Mark Durkan, personal aide to John Hume, out of the constituency after just one day. He had been introduced as a key campaign manager and his sudden departure to help in the West Tyrone constituency is a significant statement to the voters of Mid-Ulster that even the SDLP know only McGuinness can unseat McCrea by slicing through his wafer thin majority.
``Recent predictions by political analysts that Martin McGuinness will be the new Mid-Ulster MP are now being vindicated by our canvass returns,'' continued Molloy. ``They clearly show that the battle for the seat now rests between McGuinness and McCrea.''
McGuinness and his canvass teams are an invigorating sight and are being well received even in traditionally non-Sinn Féin households.
Typically, the Sinn Fein team is not complacent. ``The momentum is with Sinn Fein in terms of vote growth and dynamism, but if we are to secure victory on 1 May, we must maintain that momentum and ensure that we get every eligible voter out to cast their vote for Martin McGuinness,'' Molloy said. 13,000 registered voters didn't vote last May and the greater proportion of them were nationalist. Many among them could have an impact on who wins on 1 May.
``Willie McCrea is running scared and we have the numbers to make sure he is left with his singing career and none other,'' quipped Molloy. There is no doubt that the DUP candidate is suffering from his association last September with top loyalist Billy Wright.
As we entered Gulladuff in south Derry an appropriate piece of graffiti caught the eye: `When hope and history rhyme, Vote SF X'. This, using a line from Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney, reflects the positive feeling among the voters. Because of McGuinness's galvanising campaign there is hope, hope that a strong elected leadership will be squaring up across the negotiating table with the new incoming British government.
As McGuinness himself put it, ``my chief opponent in this election is the person who sabotaged the peace process. That person is the British Prime Minister John Major, the arch unionist. The people of Mid-Ulster can play a major role in rebuilding the peace process by casting their vote for Sinn Fein and sending a powerful message to the new incoming British government that there must be an all-inclusive process of negotiations.
``I have news for the Unionist leadership and I have news for the British government of whatever colour it will be. Change there will be. Negotiations there will be. And Sinn Fein there, will be.''
The West's Awake!
Poll points to SF victory in West Tyrone
By Mick Naughton
``Sinn Fein are now one point ahead of the combined unionist vote and seven points ahead of the SDLP,'' Barry McElduff, Pat Doherty's Director of Elections, told An Phoblacht on Wednesday 23 April. These are the results of a poll to be published in Thursday's Ulster Herald and which indicate that the Sinn Fein Vice President is well placed to take the new seat of West Tyrone.
He is ahead of Unionist Willie Thompson in the new constituency which stretches from the republican towns of Carrickmore in the east to Castlederg and Strabane in the west with Omagh in the middle.
This week Doherty applauded his canvass teams throughout West Tyrone, marking out Strabane as being particularly well organised.
``The corruption within the local council chamber there has turned away many voters from previous political allies and Sinn Fein's stand over the years has resulted in a good popular surge along the Donegal border with Tyrone,'' Doherty said.
Both Doherty and McElduff were at pains to highlight several new features to the political geography which is West Tyrone.
``Greencastle, Carrickmore, Killyclogher, Castlederg, Strabane are all going according to plan, but it is interesting that in places like Drumquin there is a good response,'' McElduff said
McNamee offers debate challenge
Sinn Féin's Newry/Armagh candidate, Pat McNamee, has challenged his opponents to a public debate on the issues of representation and accountability.
``Both Seamus Mallon (SDLP) and Danny Kennedy (UUP) have questions to answer about their records, particularly on the peace process,'' said McNamee. ``From the start of the Hume-Adams talks Seamus Mallon has preferred to attack Sinn Féin rather than those who are responsible for holding up progress - John Major's government and the Unionists. He has never once acknowledged the steps made by Gerry Adams and the Sinn Féin leadership in moving towards a peaceful settlement in our country. His anti-republican feelings are clouding his political vision.''
The Sinn Féin candidate also threw up a challenge to the Unionist candidate: ``What has Danny Kennedy done to solve the problems in our society? His not-an-inch brand of Unionism is a recipe for continued division. He and his party have rejected dialogue at every level. They would rather have domination than resolution.
``Sinn Féin's record of representation and accountability and on the peace process in this constituency will stand up to any scrutiny. I am ready to debate the issues with my opponents,'' McNamee said.
Prospects good in North Belfast - Kelly
By Mick Naughton
Sweeping through the republican heartlands of Ardoyne, New Lodge and the Bone in North Belfast before moving up the Antrim Road's leafy suburbs Sinn Fein candidate Gerry Kelly impressed voters with the message that the party's electoral prospects in the constituency should not be written off.
Where the SDLP has no presence on the ground, Sinn Fein has for over 20 years run three constituency offices and given an unrivalled constituency service on a daily basis. Promises by the SDLP five years ago that they would open one office proved yet again to be groundless, just as they had been throughout the eighties.
Commenting on up to the minute canvass returns Kelly said it was clear that Sinn Fein will poll extremely well in North Belfast and it was becoming increasingly clear that the contest had been narrowed to a two horse race between himself and the sitting Unionist Cecil Walker after the DUP's Nigel Dodds had pulled out. Last May Kelly came within less than 100 votes of topping the poll ahead of Dodds, but obviously the DUP man's campaign had run out of steam.
Kelly, describing the nationalist mood in the constituency as being ``one demanding change'' said that people wanted to bring unionist misrepresentation to an end.
``They see Sinn Fein as the only party capable of mounting a serious challenge to Cecil Walker and from the feedback on the doorsteps I believe that a growing number of nationalist voters will vote tactically in this election,'' he said.
In the shadow of the British army watch tower overlooking the New Lodge Kelly added that it was important to remember that Cecil Walker stands at the centre of a serious rift within his own constituency party. ``It is reasonable to suggest that he will have considerable difficulty uniting the many different strands of unionism in this area. Against this background, Sinn Fein can cause an upset.''
And speaking directly to previous SDLP voters he concluded: ``Under these opportune circumstances it is unfortunate that the potential for splitting the nationalist vote exists. However, I am confident that nationalist voters will effect a ground-level pact on polling day and that Sinn Fein will reap the benefit of that. The seat in North Belfast will be occupied by a nationalist representative. We in Sinn Fein are staking our claim to it now.''
Optimism in West Belfast
Eoin O'Broin tests the election mood with West Belfast activists
Canvass returns across West Belfast are suggesting that Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams are receiving a good reception and that the high Forum vote is solid.
Sinn Féin's director of canvass, Tony Catney, speaks of optimism and anger on the doorsteps. ``Constituents are angry at the tenor of the SDLP's election campaign which is attacking Sinn Fein's record on the peace process and local socio-economic issues, while saying very little about Hendron's own record''.
However Catney believes that the ``message from the canvass is quite clear, the Sinn Fein team is not only the most influential and charismatic but clearly offers the strongest opportunity for a new peace process''.
Sinn Fein publicity manager Jim Gibney stresses the three core themes of Sinn Féin's election campaign: leadership, equality and peace. ``This message is getting through to people,'' Gibney says, ``and the feedback from the canvass is excellent. Election workers are in a good mood and their confidence is growing. We are all optimistic about the outcome''.
Gibney also stresses the importance of local issues to West Belfast voters, ``the RVH and the state of the health service generally, the job situation and the deplorable levels of unemployment, especially amongst our young people, all these things are crucial issues in this election, and people are looking very closely at who is the best candidate to fight their corner''.
On the subject of unemployment, Catney speaks of the high number of disenfranchised young people across West Belfast. ``Despite being registered to vote, large numbers of young people have become alienated from the political system because of the lack of opportunity and political progress. So we're putting a lot of energy into reaching out to these people and explaining to them that a new future requires a new MP, and Gerry Adams is their only choice''.
While the contest isn't over yet, and as previous elections have shown, anything can happen in the last few days, it looks like a clear message is coming from the doors and streets of West Belfast. People want peace, they want equality and they want a strong leadership to argue their case.
We need to win the bloodless battles
By Laurence McKeown
We were told to assemble at 6.30pm sharp at the top of the road for the canvass as the bearded one himself was going to be present. Lo and behold, come the appointed time we were all present and correct. Nothing at all to do with his esteemed presence, of course. I put it down to the super efficiency and discipline of the Ballymurphy election directorate. All Indians and not a chief in sight.
The Japanese journalist who had asked to accompany us looked a bit out of place, but apart from that we looked just like any thirsty bunch which gathers outside the Sloan's Club on a warm sunny evening.
Off we went into the district, folders and files at the ready. The tightly-knit bunch at the core of the group would have reminded you of an operating theatre. ``Forceps please,'' and the yellow canvass for that street was placed in the outstreached hand. ``Scissors,'' and a list of those who had raised grievances during the green canvass was flashed before concerned eyes.
I gave Mary's back door a knock to say Gerry was in the street. ``Who's that? Gerry Adams? Sure I whipped his ass when he was a youngster. Where is he? Is that his brother Paddy over there?'' Meanwhile Gerry was on the phone to Vera Murphy from her daughter Sile's to say he had called and was sorry to have missed her.
On we sailed through Ballymurphy, the evening sun now dipping behind the Black Mountain and the chill of an early April night settling in. ``Is it cold?'' Seamy in his shirt sleeves inquired, ``or is it just me?'' ``It is cold and it's not just you,'' Sean McKnight replied, shivering in his `I kiss babies too' suit.
By the time we reached Springhill dusk was falling but the crowd of youngsters who surged forward had no thought of bedtimes on their minds. ``It's Gerry Adams! it's Gerry Adams! Yeehaa!''
``Sign this, Gerry,'' a chorus of voices shouted and everything from a football to an empty cigarette packet picked off the ground was pushed in his face.
``Tabhair domh cuigear,'' he replied and he wasn't speaking about minutes. Frustrated minders and party workers hovered on the edge of the crowd, shuffled their folders then shuffled them again. Finally they sat down on the garden walls to wait. Later that night as we made our way home through the estate a colleague remarked that this would be an important election. Aren't they all, I thought.
His comments came back to me the other day as I drove to Derry. At the foot of the climb up the Glenshane Pass the smiling face of Martin McGuinness looked down on me from a poster high up on a telegraph pole, as if welcoming me to Derry. As I drove on in to Dungiven I passed a young lad walking along the road carrying a hurley. That evening too was a sunny and pleasant one, a good evening for a match or just a practice game. He strolled along with a confident gait, his safety helmet draped over the bottom of the hurley. I thought he looked much like how Kevin, another Dungiven lad who played hurley, would have looked at his age. Kevin's home was just across from where this boy walked. Kevin who played hurley. Kevin who died on hunger strike in Long Kesh.
We had an election the year he died, a by-election. An election which returned Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. It didn't save his life, something we had all hoped for, but it meant that when he did die our enemies could never say he died without the support of his people.
All our elections are important ones. They're bloodless battles. Battles which if won may save the life's blood of some of those young from Springhill and all the other working class housing estates and rural townlands of the north and elsewhere. Victories which if won may mean that the only arms our children grow up to know and hold are those of a loved one.
Election without democracy, history without change
This election could herald historic change in the Six Counties but more of the same in Britain. Brian Campbell analyses the election.
Despite all the hype from Tony Blair's spin doctors the British general election is unlikely to herald an historic shift in that country's political life. Because the political debate is being conducted so completely on a right-wing agenda, the contest is effectively between two versions of conservatism.
Tony Blair's Labour Party has moved swiftly to the right over the past three years since Blair became leader until now many of their policies are indistinguishable from those of the ruling Conservative Party.
The Labour Party now advocate selling state enterprises; they have promised not to raise taxes or increase public spending; and they have pledged to continue with restrictions on trade union rights.
If Labour win - and their continuing, if erratic, lead in the polls suggests they will - it will signal another step in the historic retreat of the left. It is inevitable that whoever wins, right wing policies will continue to be implemented.
Labour activists will argue that they must conduct their campaign in ``realistic'' terms. In other words, they acknowledge that the centre ground of British politics is now where Thatcherism was fifteen years ago. No wonder the Daily Mail is confused about who to support in this election. What Labour activists do not acknowledge is that they have been powerless to change the agenda of political discourse - and that is the weakness of the left in Britain.
But if the election campaign is sterile in Britain, in the Six Counties it is being fought with its usual passion and with a sharp eye on its historic significance.
There is no doubt that Sinn Féin is challenging hard in three seats: West Belfast, where Gerry Adams is favourite to win the seat from Joe Hendron; Mid-Ulster, where Martin McGuinness seems to be ahead of Willie McCrea; and West Tyrone, a new seat with a nationalist majority which Pat Doherty, Vice President of Sinn Féin, is hopeful of winning.
If Sinn Féin could pick up those seats it would transform the political scene. It is that which makes the election historic, says Gerry Adams. He has billed it as the most important election since Ireland was partitioned 75 years ago, arguing that a strong showing for Sinn Féin would confront the new British government with an irresistible argument for holding all-party talks, a demand which John Major's government has strenuously resisted during and after the IRA's eighteen month ceasefire.
But if Sinn Féin has one or more MPs elected, a British government would be under severe pressure to deal with the democratically elected representatives of nationalism in the Six Counties.
The election can also be seen as an intriguing contest for the hearts and minds of nationalists. In May 1996, in elections to choose negotiators for talks, Sinn Féin gained its highest vote for over forty years and moved to within 6% of being the largest nationalist party.
Three months later, when the British government capitulated to violent demonstrations by Unionists and allowed Orangmen to march through nationalist areas, Sinn Féin spoke for the entire nationalist community when they organised massive demonstrations against the state. Their leadership figures, most notably Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, are increasingly being seen as best able to articulate nationalist demands.
By contrast, there are deep divisions within the SDLP. John Hume's dialogue with Sinn Féin which created the peace process and led to the IRA ceasefire of 1994 was viewed with suspicion within his own party. At times Hume appeared to stand alone among his MPs against those hostile to any contacts with Sinn Féin. But Hume's stance has been very popular with the nationalist electorate and thus, so also has Sinn Féin's. The simple demand for all-party talks without preconditions strikes a chord.
The argument within nationalism is therefore between those who support that demand and the anti-republican faction of the SDLP who would be happy to see Sinn Féin excluded and a settlement reached within the Six Counties. So far, the evidence is that nationalists are backing those who are arguing for talks leading to an all-Ireland settlement.
The election result could pose a testing question for the new Blair government. Sinn Féin is an abstentionist party but they have pledged that their candidates, if elected, will attend Westminster to lobby and hold press conferences. The last time Martin McGuinness visited the British parliament, as a guest of a left-wing Labour MP, eighty journalists and numerous camera crews turned up. Similar scenes are to be expected, with the attendant worldwide coverage and the chance for Sinn Féin to put its analysis across.
Then, at the end of May, further electoral gains can be made when local elections are held in the Six Counties and, probably, a general election in the 26 Counties. And with the loyalist marching season starting soon after that, it could be a long, uncomfortably hot summer for Blair's new government. It will be a test of just how far Blair is prepared to go to ape Major's right-wing policies.
Election 97 - the figures and facts
What is at stake next week on 1 May? At one level there is the spoils of the eighteen elections, including the Westminster salaries and expense accounts for attending MPs. At a more crucial level there are 17 reasons to vote for a vibrant radical and challenging nationalist voice. This week Neil Forde profiles the 18 Westminster constituencies from East Antrim to Upper Bann.
Three constituencies make up the Antrim Westminster profile and three unionist MPs have been ritually dispatched to Westminster. DUP leader Ian Paisley in North Antrim is the most well known of the three MPs as Roy Beggs in East Antrim and Clifford Forsythe in South Antrim have a considerably quieter public life than angry Ian. However there could just be a change this year in the ratio of two Ulster Unionists to Paisley.
Roy Beggs won the then newly created East Antrim seat from the DUP in 1983 by 367 votes. Voting pacts kept Beggs in the seat in 1987 and he won by over 7,000 votes from the DUP in 1992. However, in last May's elections the gap between the Democratic and Ulster Unionists was less than 500 votes and Jack McKee could now replace him on the green leather benches of Westminster.
The Sinn Féin candidates are Chrissie McAuley in East Antrim, James McCarry in North and Henry Cushnihan in South Antrim. Sinn Féin took 5,347 votes out of these three constituencies in 1996 and this sets a target for 1997.
The first of the two Hendron brothers comes into the electoral fray here. Jim Hendron replaces `Lord' Alderice who, having failed by the electoral route to Westminster, took a life peerage last year. This constituency contains Alliance's highest vote share, but Jim's chances of unseating Peter Robinson are minimal. The UUP's Reg Empey could run Robinson close. It all hinges on where the 7,454 unionist votes that were garnered by the PUP, the UKUP and the UDP in 1996 will go. None of these parties is contesting this constituency in 1997.
Dominic Corr represents Sinn Féin in a constituency where the party won 862 votes last year.
Party 1992 1996
SF 4,693 7,681
SDLP 7,615 7,493
UUP 17,240 6,938
DUP --- 7,778
Seasoned election commentators like to talk of battlegrounds and North Belfast fits this title in many ways. The sting has been taken out of the election by the agreement in the unionist camp on sitting 72 year old Ulster Unionist MP Cecil Walker running uncontested. In the May `96 elections it was one seat each for Sinn Féin, the SDLP, UUP and DUP with less than a thousand votes separating the four parties. Interest now centres on Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly. Will he be able to maintain the lead established over the SDLP in 1996 when only the DUP had a vote greater that Sinn Féin?
This constituency is very much a changed constituency from its last outing in a Westminster election. Luckily for sitting Ulster Unionist MP Martin Smyth he will not have to contend with the swapping of wards with neighbouring East Belfast. The wards South Belfast gains are from the DUP stronghold of Castlereagh council area. The DUP did not run here in 1992 and have stood aside for Smyth again in 1997. Sinn Féin doubled its vote in 1996 setting a new benchmark for 1997 for Seán Hayes to improve on his 1992 showing.
Party 1992 1996
SF 16,826 22,355
SDLP 17,415 11,087
UUP 4,766 1,489
This is the one constituency where in recent years a nationalist party was able to organise a voting pact. That was 1992 when unionist voters on the Shankill voted for the SDLP's Joe Hendron thus ensuring Gerry Adams lost the Sinn Féin seat. In 1996 the Sinn Féin vote more than doubled that of the SDLP and the party took four of the five forum seats. Holding onto the 1996 vote will be difficult as the combined opposition to Sinn Féin will leave no stone unturned to deprive the party of the seat they won in 1983 and `87.
At 61 sitting UUP MP William Ross is one of the younger members of the Ulster Unionist old guard. This time around he has to contend with the DUP but this should not be much trouble to Ross. Malachy O'Kane is the Sinn Féin candidate. The party took just under 10% of the vote here in 1996.
This is the one constituency Sinn Féin will give a miss to this time around. Robert McCartney won the seat in a by-election following the death of Popular Unionist Jim Kilfedder. In the 1996 elections his party was outpolled by the UUP but it is likely that McCartney will hold onto the seat this time around.
Party 1992 1996
SF 1,843 6,142
SDLP 31,523 20,220
UUP 25,181 10,379
Floating voters in both the unionist and nationalist electorates characterise this constituency, which Eddie McGrady won from the UUP's Enoch Powell in 1987. Sinn Féin's 13% vote share in the 1996 elections was a huge surge for the party in the constituency. McGrady must be expected to hold the seat in 1997 from agreed unionist candidate, the UUP's Nesbitt.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Party 1992 1996
SF 12,604 11,666
SDLP 12,810 10,399
UUP 26,923 15,542
Even though the Sinn Féin vote dropped slightly here in 1996 the party still pulled ahead of the SDLP. Gerry McHugh is the Sinn Féin candidate, but the absence of an agreed nationalist candidate means that Major Ken is probably a safe bet to retain the seat he won from Owen Carron in 1983 when the SDLP's decision to contest this constituency lost the seat for the majority nationalist community.
Party 1992 1996
SF 9,149 11,618
SDLP 26,710 19,997
DUP 13,705 5,054
John Hume seems unassailable here and will be returned for his fourth term in Westminster. The battle then is for second place. In 1992 the DUP were over 4,000 votes ahead of Sinn Féin but the Sinn Féin vote in 1996 was greater than the combined unionist vote resulting in no forum seats for unionist candidates.
The UUP's Jeffrey Donaldson is set take the seat James Molyneaux vacates as he, like John Alderdice, becomes a life peer. Sue Ramsey is the Sinn Féin candidate in a constituency that lost nationalist wards to West Belfast in the last round of boundary changes.
Party 1992 1996
SF 10,248 13,001
SDLP 16,994 12,492
DUP 23,181 7,243
Mid Ulster is a historic constituency for republicans and radical nationalists who have won this seat in 1955 (twice), 1969 and 1970. Danny Morrison lost by 78 votes to the singing Willie in 1983 who has held the seat since. Sinn Féin topped the poll in 1996 and are set with Martin McGuinness to present the strongest possible challenge to the the DUP this time around. The Sinn Féin strategy of appealing to the uncommitted nationalist voters and SDLP floaters could deliver this seat back to the nationalist people of Mid Ulster.
Party 1992 1996
SDLP 26,073 16,775
SF 6,547 12,585
UUP 18,982 11,047
Newry Armagh is a constituency that survived the Boundary Commission's knife last time around much to the relief of SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon. It is also another constituency where Sinn Féin made massive gains in 1996. However making a direct comparison between Westminster elections and last May's Forum outing is ignoring the prospect of tactical voting to ensure a nationalist victory. Maximising the SF vote here has occupied the minds of the party's electoral boffins and they have run a very confident campaign.
Apart from Ian Paisley John Taylor is the only unionist MP who served in the old Stormont junta. This time out his unionist opposition comes from the DUP's Iris Robinson. Though the DUP came within 1,000 votes of the UUP last May it would be a major upset if Taylor lost the seat this time. Garret O Fachtna offers the Sinn Féin alternative.
Party 1992 1996
SF --- 11,516
SDLP --- 11,622
UUP --- 7,327
DUP --- 6,727
This is one of the three crunch constituencies as Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the UUP battle for this seat. Sinn Féin vice president Pat Doherty has been campaigning relentlessly here to convince nationalist voters that the seat is winnable and that they can overcome the failure of the SDLP to agree a single nationalist candidate. Along with Mid Ulster it will be one of the most close run counts in next week's election.
Sinn Féin's Bernadette O'Hagan has the difficult task here of running against UUP leader David Trimble who seems unassailable. Sinn Féin won over 12% of the vote here in 1996 and took a forum seat,] surprising many.
Poised for an historic breakthrough
The next seven days are vitally important for the nationalists of the Six Counties. How they vote will have a direct bearing on the conflict in Ireland. A new British government will study the results with great interest and determine its policy accordingly.
And the message that is being put across loud and clear is that a strong vote for Sinn Féin - and particularly the election of Sinn Féin MPs - is the surest way to open up a new opportunity for peace.
Sinn Féin's analysis is being more and more widely accepted among nationalists. It is that peace with freedom and justice will only come through inclusive talks with no preconditions. Every party to the conflict must sit round the table and deal with the root causes of this war in Ireland. It is an argument which is being put patiently, steadily and in whatever way it can be got across.
It is a message which is being put with great energy by Sinn Féin's tireless band of election workers.
And it is a message which will be put even more strongly by Sinn Féin MPs reinforced by a strong mandate from the nationalist people.
Sinn Féin MPs cannot be ignored. John Major and his Unionist allies have hijacked the word democracy to mean exactly what they want it to mean - the continuation of an undemocratic political arrangement. They can be challenged by building political strength, by confronting them on their own ``democratic'' ground with the support of a sizeable proportion of the nationalist people.
By voting for Sinn Féin, nationalists can be confident that the analysis which will bring a peaceful future to Ireland will be put with energy and eloquence on the back of political strength.
The new British government will then be forced to deal with the elected representatives of the nationalist people. It is the only way to move the peace process forward.
Help create a new opportunity for peace - vote Sinn Féin on 1 May.