11 June 2009 Edition
An historic victory for positive politics
BY LAURA FRIEL
SINN FÉIN’S Bairbre de Brún delivered an historic victory for her party when she became the first republican to top the poll in the Six Counties in a European election. De Brún said she viewed the vote she received as “an endorsement of positive politics” and pledged her focus would be “delivering a better future for everyone”.
Sinn Féin pointed out that, despite a significant vote for anti-Agreement unionism in the shape of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, the vast majority of voters had backed parties in favour of the Peace Process and the power-sharing Assembly.
The significance of de Brún’s victory was not lost on anyone, not even on the unionist media. Writing for the News Letter, Sam McBride commented:
“In what could have been a potentially difficult election for Sinn Féin, de Brún barely seemed to have to fight for her votes.
“That she has now seen off the SDLP with such aplomb will give the party further confidence as the dominant voice of nationalism.”
Rumours of Sinn Féin’s historic success began to emerge as early as Friday during the verification process when it became clear that majority unionist districts had suffered a falling turn-out while nationalist areas remained steady.
The message had been driven home with news that the highest turn-out had been in Mid-Ulster, the constituency of joint First Minister Martin McGuinness. The lowest turn-out was recorded for Strangford, the constituency of Iris Robinson, the wife of the First Minister.
Both Iris and Peter have been implicated in the ongoing British parliamentary expenses debacle. The media speculated on the scandal’s impact on unionist voters, who have traditionally looked to Westminster to set their political agenda.
Early commentators had predicted an overall fall in the turn-out but on the ground Sinn Féin canvassers had remained confident that the party’s voters had come out in numbers, consistent with other years.
If the media was anticipating a lower turn-out, Sinn Féin activists were sure that the downturn must be occurring in unionist areas. In the King’s Hall, alarm bells were ringing amongst the DUP as early as Friday night.
By Saturday, the News Letter was conceding ground to Sinn Féin with the front page predicting “turn-out likely to see de Brún top the poll”.
The paper admitted the turn-out in unionist areas had plummeted but the DUP was being reticent about its projected performance at the polls, declaring it was “too early to say”.
But unofficial tallies suggested the three unionist candidates – Diane Dodds of the DUP, sitting UUP MEP Jim Nicholson and Jim Allister of the breakaway TUV – were tightly bunched. That was not what the DUP wanted to hear.
LOOKING INTO THE ABYSS
By Saturday, Peter Robinson was looking into the possible abyss of his party being pipped to the post by former DUP and maverick anti-Agreement unionist Jim Allister.
By Monday, the News Letter’s readership was advised, “Ulster braced for Euro result” with warnings that, “early indications pointed to the DUP not topping the poll for the first time in 40 years”.
News Letter correspondent Alex Kane predicted that if a three-way split between unionists emerged, future elections would witness even more seats “lost to nationalism”.
Meanwhile, the Irish News was talking up the chances of the SDLP gaining a European seat but no one was really listening.
According to the paper, the SDLP were pinning their hopes on the operation of PR and the remote possibility of Sinn Féin voters giving the SDLP their second preference.
Despite its ardent support for the SDLP, by Monday morning all the Irish News could report was that “the SDLP remains in the mix”. Not much hope there then.
With over 126,000 first-preference votes, well past the quota, Bairbre de Brún was the first candidate to be successfully elected, leaving the other parties, all of whom failed to reach the quota, to battle it out with transfers.
In Belfast’s King’s Hall, the atmosphere was tense. When their former MEP, Jim Allister, had walked away to form a rival unionist party, the DUP had anticipated an impact on its core vote. It had been estimated that breakaway unionism would attract around 30,000 former DUP voters.
The fury on the faces of the DUP told its own tale as it emerged that the TUV had polled over 66,000 first-preference votes, just shy of half of the DUP’s former vote, before being eliminated by transfers.
Jim Allister bowed out, declaring his intention to stand in the next Westminster election. In a speech reminiscent of Ian Paisley, Allister warned against those who “put their cheque books before their conscience”, promising “a day of reckoning” for those “who day and daily prop up terrorists in government”.
But the comparison was merely rhetorical. In the past, Paisley had topped the polls; now bluff and bluster unionism couldn’t even get elected.
The UUP, once the most favoured power-brokers in the North, had been forced to rely on transfer votes to re-elect a sitting MEP.
The DUP had just witnessed their candidate fall from top of the poll to sweating it out for the last seat. If there were glum faces all around, who could blame them?
As Bairbre de Brún leaned forward to shake the hand of her newly-elected European colleague, Diane Dodds shunned the gesture.
But perhaps, for once, the refusal to shake hands by a petulant member of the DUP had as much to do with unionist rivalry as anti-republican hostility.
As de Brún stepped up to the podium to deliver her acceptance speech, Jim Allister’s supporters, dressed to a man in dark suits Mafia-style, jeered and booed.
But republicans hadn’t been the only TUV – target for derision. Diane Dodds had also endured more than her share of cat-calls and heckling from ‘No Agreement’ unionists.
Conceivably, Dodds’s decision to hold her hands so firmly behind her back had at least partly been prompted by the desire to overcome an uncontrollable urge by the DUP politician to box Jim Allister soundly about both ears.
MEDIA BUZZ – Gerry Adams and Bairbre de Brún speak to the media