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8 May 1997 Edition

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The People's MPs

Two days that shook the system

Micheál MacDonncha travelled to Newry for polling day and on to Omagh for the count.

Thursday 1 May

The chudder of a British Army chopper could not drown out the blackbird singing outside my window. He had every reason to sing because the morning was perfect, promising a long bright sunny day ahead. When we arrived at the Sinn Féin caravan outside St Joseph's School the man in charge had already been there for three and half hours, from before the 7am opening of polls and ticking the early bird republican voters off his list.

On polling day political animals become obsessed with one thing - getting people to make the short journey from the comfort of their armchairs to the polling station. Most dedicated republican voters need little encouragement. By 10.35am they reckoned that about 70 Sinn Féin votes had been cast in this one station. The flow continued all morning as people walked past the RUC men who were sweltering in caps and flak jackets and eyeing the coming and going from the caravan.

There was no shortage of helpers. Voluntary workers appeared regularly and were dispatched to their tasks. Offers of cars and drivers were accepted and one woman even entrusted her keys to the election team. In contrast the SDLP had to pay people to put up posters and to act as polling clerks.

The holy scripture in the cult of electoralism is the register; marking it is the prerogative of those wise men and women who have been initiated in the rites of electioneering. In Newry the system Sinn Féin used was being tried for the first time but it was carried out with the assurance of veterans. Names were ticked off the list at a steady rate, with things slowing down a little in the afternoon. The real test would come with the evening rush.

A British army foot patrol made a brief appearance. Teenagers barely old enough to vote sprinted past the polling station with their rifles across their arms. Some of them weren't born when the 18 years of Tory rule began. Was it to them that the Alliance candidate's posters were directed? ``Abandon the trenches'' they said.

I slipped back to the house to catch the six o'clock news. UTV Live said there was a high turnout everywhere. Bombscares in Belfast were attributed to loyalists but they had no effect on the turnout. Women workers in Derry's Central Manufacturing Company were given a May Day present by their bosses; when they turned up for work they were told the factory was closed and their jobs were gone. On RTE Charlie Bird predicted that on 15 May John Bruton would call an election for 6 June. Another election.

But let's take them one at a time. Back at St Joseph's the rush was starting. People on their way home for work were going in. Now was the crucial time. The list of Sinn Féin voters had to be scrutinised to see who had not appeared so far. Workers were sent off in cars to knock doors and lift the voters. Local knowledge came into its own. The large number of people involved in the Sinn Féin operation meant that everyone was known to somebody.

As the light faded the list of non-voters dwindled down to the stragglers. There was a dash to get last-minute lifts. Only a handful of the targeted vote was left on the list now. A half hour to go before close of polls and already the operation was winding down.

Someone appeared with a gas lamp. By its light the figures looked good. They had got the vote out.


Friday 2 May

The road from Newry to Omagh is through the lush countryside of North Armagh and East Tyrone. It shimmered in green and gold this morning, the only blemish being the black sign pinned to a tree ``The Wages of Sin is Death.'' A more earthly reminder was the sign for Caledon. In that townland in 1968 bigotted unionists allocated a council house to a single Protestant woman. A Catholic family who were denied the house decided to squat. The protest led to the first Civil Rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon. The rest is history.

And the next chapter in that history was about to be written in the count centre in Omagh. In the big sports hall of Omagh Leisure Complex the votes from the constituencies of Mid-Ulster and West Tyrone were being counted. Downstairs was Fermanagh South Tyrone. I've attended many election counts in Dublin but this was a new experience. I was struck immediately by the crudity of the first-past-the-post system. There was none of the feverish tallying and number-crunching associated with proportional representation. Only Sinn Féin was attempting to do a tally, watching the votes being unfolded on the tables and counting the totals in each ballot box for the main candidates. But it was impossible to do an accurate job because the restrictions on access to the count meant that there were insufficient numbers of party workers to cover all the boxes.

I took a hand at tallying a box. The polling station marked on it was an Orange hall. The susbstantial number of people who put an X next to Pat Doherty's name must have got particular satisfaction voting Sinn Féin there.

The parties did have the key people in their election machines present but the lack of hard information early on turned the count centre into a factory that made only one thing - rumours. There were supposed to be bad signs from Mid-Ulster. The unionist turnout was so solid in response to Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness that the DUP's Willie McCrea might hold on. Sinn Féin and the SDLP were neck and neck in West Tyrone. No, Pat Doherty was ahead. Or was it the SDLP man, Byrne?

Worrying news was filtering through from Belfast of Gerry Adams struggling, a couple of hundred votes in it, the Shankill swinging it for Hendron. By 1pm the new British Prime Minister Tony Blair was already leaving Buckingham Palace and heading for Downing Street but in Omagh we were still waiting to find out the identity of three MPs.

The sun was splitting the concrete terrace outside. Above the car park a big water slide in Tory blue was a metaphor for the fate of John Major's party the night before as he watched MP after MP go down the plughole. Would someone here go the same way?

Paul Henry of Sinn Féin pointed to the big tally for McGuinness in a part of Coalisland that would not be regarded as a republican stronghold. Another straw in the wind.

There was rush to the TV set. West Belfast was about to be declared. Mixed company meant that the cheers of the Sinn Féiners inside the count were somewhat muted but from outside could be heard the celebration of the crowd already assembled in anticipation of the emergence of one or two of their own Sinn Féin MPs.

Unionist heads were down. When the returning officer declared Ken Maginnis elected for Fermanagh-South Tyrone there was not a clap or a shout. There were bitter words from Maginnis as he demonised the 11,174 people who voted for Sinn Féin's Gerry McHugh. The quiet-spoken Fermanagh man was unruffled and simply paid tribute to his voters and said that Westminster had never delivered for the constituency. An agreement with the SDLP could have elected a nationalist MP but the SDLP had ruled it out. But Sinn Féin was well and truly on the map here and would eventually reclaim the seat.

Back at the counting tables there was at last hard information about Mid-Ulster. It was possible to count the bundles of votes as they were stacked on the shelves. The shelves marked McCrea and McGuinness were filling up; Denis Haughey's cupboard looked bare. Every bundle was watched as it was carried from the tables to the shelves. Gearóid O hEara was the first to say ``We have it.'' More cautious types held their speak. But they knew that this was it. A new era was minutes away.

The result was confirmed to the candidates by the returning officer Mr Patterson. Someone pointed out that it was the same man who announced the election of Bobby Sands in 1981. Three days from Bobby's anniversary republicans were again changing the political landscape west of the Bann.

The candidates were called to the platform for the official declaration. Willie McCrea refused to come. When the figure 20,694 was read out after McGuinness's name a mighty cheer went up. The forest of TV camera tripods looked in danger of being blown away in the gale of republican jubilation.

The new Sinn Féin MP gave a clenched fist salute and his first tribute was to his wife and family. Then he praised the Sinn Féin election machine in Mid-Ulster ``the best in the country''. And he directed everyone's attention to the new British government which had been sent a very clear message.

The man who spoke at a rally in support of the now jailed `King Rat' Billy Wright refused to share a platform with the elected represenative of 20,694 people. McCrea pulled the microphone stand down from the platform and uttered five minutes of recrimination and dire predictions for the people of Mid-Ulster, with a passing compliment for John Bruton. A mischievous thought crossed my mind. I thought of that photograph of Danny Morrison smiling as Willie sang a hymn after he had beaten the Sinn Féiner by only 78 votes in Mid-Ulster in 1983. Then I remembered how in 1992 when Gerry Adams lost his West Belfast seat Danny had written from Crumlin Road Prison that some loyalist prisoner with a sense of humour had put up a sign saying ``Gerry out - Danny in.'' Now it was a case of ``Willie out - Billy in.''

``Two out of three ain't bad'' was repeated by more than one person in the crowd that had been waiting for hours in the brilliant sunshine outside the centre. Their waiting was over. After the West Tyrone declaration Martin McGuinness, Pat Doherty and Gerry McHugh swept outside to be greeted by hundreds of people waving tricolours. They were carried shoulder high to the cavalcade which would carry the new MP like an All-Ireland winning team.

It says something about the strength of Sinn Féin that the celebrations which followed in Omagh were tinged with disappointment that West Tyrone had not been won as well. Two Sinn Féin MPs, Willie McCrea ousted, an increased vote everywhere including West Tyrone, but it was still not enough. And these are the people whose expectations the British government has constantly tried to lower.


The sun shone on Sinn Féin

Eoin O Broin witnessed the historic election in Belfast

Nobody really knew what would happen. Despite the optimism on the streets of West Belfast in the run up to polling day, even the most confident canvasser had to admit to a certain apprehension.

The election had been hailed as an historic turning point for nationalists in the Six Counties. A Sinn Féin victory would make history. The reverse side of the coin, seldom mentioned but close to everyone's mind, was that a bad Sinn Féin result would have more serious consequences than any election in recent times. The stakes in this election were higher than ever before, and nowhere more so than in West Belfast.

Harassment and intimidation from the RUC and loyalists on polling day gave this apprehension an added edge. Bomb hoaxes, bullying of election workers, raids on canvass caravans, and a heavy crown forces presence in polling stations across the city cast a shadow over the hottest day of the year. It wasn't just Sinn Féin election workers who realised the importance of this election. Some were willing to do as much as they could to disrupt the vote.

Before the polls had even closed, suspense had set in and the tension began to build. There was an eerie mood, a sense of suspended animation over the constituency as I travelled home on Thursday night. Even news of the landslide British Labour party majority couldn't distract attention from the all-important contest, West Belfast, although watching the blank stares of Tory ministers Forsyth, Rifkind and Portillo getting their come-uppance was a nice distraction.

Early Friday morning and Belfast's City Hall was unusually quiet for an election count. Journalists desperately looked for candidates or election workers to interview, but all were absent, give or take a few marginal faces.

But shortly before noon a gaggle of Sinn Féin election workers stormed the heart of Unionism; up the back stairs they positioned themselves in every corner of the Gallery. They weren't going to miss this show.

An hour passed and not a word from the West Belfast count. Rumours were circulating about every other constituency in the North, but Adams and Hendron? Nobody knew anything. And the Sinn Fein tally people were saying even less; such was their apprehension.

By 2pm, the atmosphere had livened up. More journalists, more candidates and more tension. Crowds of republicans huddled in corners biting their nails and wringing their hands, eyes fixed on the door of the West Belfast count. Every sight of Richard McAuley or Sue Ramsey made hearts jump, expecting some news.

Just as the suspense was becoming unbearable, journalists bolted towards the announcement room. Hendron appeared from the count and, face downcast, headed in the same direction. Seconds later Adams followed suit, but nobody was sure that his enigmatic smile indicated victory.

And as the official announcement made its way through City Hall, 25,662 for Adams and 17,752 for Hendron, tension gave way to tears and then to jubilation, the air of expectancy and hope became reality. It was as if nobody thought it possible, as if it was all some kind of big shock. Adams was the new MP for Belfast West. And a great bonus, his majority was nearly 8,000.

Someone said that Hendron got 6,000 votes from the Shankill; another pointed out that this made Adams's share of the nationalist vote even bigger. A third pundit, crying, informed the crowd that the turnout was 74%; way up on last year. A fourth called out the figure 1,556, all the votes for Ulster Unionist candidate Fred Parkinson. The message was clear, even if Hendron got all of these votes he still wouldn't have come near Adams.

As the Sinn Féin election workers and supporters prepared to leave the building, the news of McGuinness's victory in Mid-Ulster came through. Nothing was going to stop the Sinn Féin crowd now, and as they spilled out into Donegall Place to be joined by hundreds more, the meaning of the double victory was clear. This election was [`was' in italics] historic. It vindicated Sinn Féin's peace strategy and their leadership team, despite all the demonisation in the media. It was the best answer to those who would deny Sinn Féin voters their right to representation and those such as John Bruton who claimed a vote for Sinn Féin was a vote for violence.

Marching through Belfast city centre and up Castle Street to the Falls Road, the crowd swelled. Who knows how many people were there. We were all too happy to bother counting. Pavement to pavement tricolours, thunderous cheers and chants and the constant refrain of Labbi Siffre's `Something Inside So Strong'.

Gerry Adams was returned as MP for West Belfast, and from now on neither unionist intransigence nor British government inactivity can deny republicans their democratic rights. We have made our choice clear, we want our mandate respected, and we want all inclusive negotiations. Nothing else will do.


Sinn Féin looks set to win two new council seats in East and South Belfast following the Westminster election results in those constituencies. Both held on to the electoral gains made during the Forum election in 1996.

In the Short Strand, in East Belfast, Sinn Féin polled 810 votes, approximately 75% of the area's total vote. To win a council seat only an additional 200 votes are required. Local representative Dominic Corr said that ``the election of a Sinn Fein councillor would be history in the making. It would be the first time this century that the republican community of east Belfast would have proper representation''.

South Belfast registered just over 2000 votes. Sinn Féin representative Sean Hayes said, ``we are on the verge of winning a seat in Belfast city council, which would be an enormous breakthrough for nationalists in this area. We have been misrepresented by sitting SDLP Councillor Alisdair McDonnell and Unionist MP Martin Smyth for the last number of years, and now the time has come when the people of the Lower Ormeau Road and the Markets area will have effective representation. All we need to to is push our vote up to secure the seat.''

North Belfast vote up

By Mick Naughton

Gerry Kelly increased Sinn Fein's huge Forum vote of May last year by almost another 1,000.

Kelly declared himself ``delighted'' with his party machine which this year moved into the SDLP heartland for the first time. With names like Ben Madigan Park and Chichester Park appearing on canvas sheets the SDLP knew Sinn Féin was barking at their heels. Sinn Féin is confident that Kelly's dramatic increase will translate into more Sinn Féin seats in Belfast's City Hall on 21 May.

Kelly's chances of taking the seat were dealt a blow when loyalist parties pulled out, allowing for no repeat of the vote shredding last year when the Sinn Féin man came within a whisker of the DUP's Nigel Dodds. This time Dodds, along with the PUP, pulled out.

Kelly, in acknowledging these tactical moves, was buoyant and said that this year's terrific vote was putting down a marker that Sinn Féin are set in the future to take what is speedily becoming a marginal seat for the unionists given population shifts out of North Belfast.

``In 1992 we polled 4,882 to the SDLP's 7,869, yet this year we achieved 8,375, an increase from 11.34% to 20.20%. This is a clear recognition by the electorate that our peace strategy is working and of the hard work on the ground of our three constituency offices is reaping rewards.

``The SDLP have nothing on the ground despite two decades of promises that they would open a constituency office in North Belfast. This false claim is recognised by the nationalist population here, and I was pleased to receive warm support from previous SDLP voters and non-voters. I want to thank both them and our traditional supporters. They refused to listen to nonsense from both Dublin and London and made up their own minds during our intensive canvassing on the doorsteps.''


Sinn Féin triumph

Mícheál MacDonncha analyses a momentous week

Two Sinn Féin MPs. Sinn Féin overtaking the DUP as the third party in the Six Counties. The Tories reduced to a parliamentary rump with no seats in Wales or Scotland. Who would have believed it could happen even a week ago?

It is difficult fully to appreciate the enormity of what has taken place. For republicans of course the achievement of Sinn Féin is a cause of celebration and an enormous sign of hope for the future. It is important to examine the full signifigance of that achievement.

The Daily Telegraph said on its front page that Sinn Féin had achieved its best electoral result in the Six Counties for 40 years. Technically that is true as in 1955 Sinn Féin got two MPs and 25% of the vote. But that was an exceptional election in an era when Sinn Féin intervened rarely in elections and deployed no consistent electoral strategy. It was not until 1982 that such a consistent strategy began to be developed.

In 1983 Gerry Adams was elected for West Belfast for the first time and Danny Morrison missed Mid-Ulster by only 78 votes. But that was only the beginning of a long period of building a party. Initial fears in British and Dublin government circles that the SDLP would be eclipsed by Sinn Féin eventually subsided. At times they were to be followed with predictions of a Sinn Féin decline. But in election after election, both local and Westminster over 15 years Sinn Féin has firmly established its base of support and then expanded upon it.

What Sinn Féin has now is a seasoned, experienced election machine. It is thus better placed than it could ever have been in 1983 or at any time in the past to consolidate its gains, retain its parliamentary seats and win more.

Those in the SDLP who were most negative about the Hume-Adams dialogue, such as Seamus Mallon and Joe Hendron, realise the signifigance of the Sinn Féin achievement and their post-election bitterness shows it. In a pathetic whinge to the Irish News Hendron spoke of the ingratitude of the voters he had helped over so many years. He called Sinn Féin fascist in one breath and in the next he said he believed Gerry Adams was sincere about peace. Mallon called the high Sinn Féin vote an aberration.

The muted coverage in much of the media in Dublin was also caused by overindulgence in sour grapes. The Irish Times on the day after the count pointedly carried no photographs of the Sinn Féin MPs or the celebrations of supporters and ran a venomous cartoon by Martyn Turner which depicted Mitchel McLaughlin with a Hitler moustache. Editorial scorn was also poured on Sinn Féin by the Irish Times and the Irish Independent spoke of what a bad result it was.

It seems that 15 years after Sinn Féin entered the electoral arena in the Six Counties certain elements still have big problems coming to terms with the chosen representatives of the nationalist people. One such is John Bruton. His only comment on the electoral verdict of nationalists was to falsely accuse Gerry Adams of making a menacing comment at the hunger-strike commemoration in Belfast last Sunday.

Having made the mistake of telling nationalists how to vote and getting a short answer, Bruton is now electioneering on the southern side of the border. He dreads Sinn Féin success there as well. The point Adams was making was that his party has seen off Margaret Thatcher and John Major, both of whom for years had tried to destroy Sinn Féin. Bruton would be better advised to accept that fact and to address the new reality.

And what a new reality it is. One commentator pointed out that with no seats in Scotland or Wales the Tories are now the English National Party. John Major fought his election campaign on the basis of defence of the Union. He was turfed out. Remember Major's dire prediction at the start of the campaign that a Labour victory would mean the end of ``1000 years of British history''? This is the beginning of the end. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed to constitutional reform and parliaments for Scotland and Wales. Next month the Union Jack will be lowered in Hong Kong, the last significant outpost of the British Empire (apart from the Six Counties of course).

Now put yourself in the minds of the unionists in Ireland in this scenario. Gone is their parliamentary leverage on John Major. Their Tory allies have been devastated and face a long period in the opposition wilderness, racked by division. The new Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has a huge majority and a free hand to deal with Ireland. Of course the unionists have friends in Labour. Of course that party's policy on Irish unity has been watered down. Of course such a strong majority could be turned against republicans. But the key factor now is the momentum for change.

The only way for all party leaders to lead their followers is to the talks table. The status quo is not an option. All mandates must be recognised, a fact that Tony Blair and new British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam must accept.

It is republicans who have created the momentum for change. It must be maintained now both in the local government elections across the Six Counties on 21 May and in the general election in the 26 Counties which is expected to be held on 6 June. The election of a Sinn Féin TD or TDs would be another force for change. After such a momentous week who can doubt the ability of Sinn Féin to do the business once again?


Sex appeal, shy Alex and censorship

By Laurence McKeown

I had thought of not making any reference at all in this week's article to the elections as I know the paper will be full of it, but then thought, what the heck, why not revel in it. It's not every day we get these wee (or not so wee) victories.

The problem is that there are so many different comments that could be made about it. For instance, did any of you compare the faces and gestures of the newly elected Sinn Féin members Gerry and Martin to those of Trimble and Paisley? You would have thought the latter had lost their seats given the doom and gloom with which they started at us through the TV cameras. I can understand the annoyance and disappointment of the losers and the Reverend Willie certainly treated us to a display of that, but surely the victors could appear just a teeny weeny bit happy. Even Dr Joe, I have to say to his credit, was fairly statesman-like in his acceptance of defeat (though he undid that in an Irish News interview on Tuesday when he called republicans `fascists').

And what of the newly-elected member for West Tyrone, Willie Thompson? I haven't even seen a photo of this man yet but had the opportunity to listen to him on Sunday morning on the radio outlining his political philosophy. There are a number of issues which the boul Willie holds dear to his heart. The first one, he says, is the issue of pro-life. There are too many abortions being carried out, he says, and he will be voicing opposition to this. Now the issue of abortion and a woman's right to choose is a topic guaranteed to raise emotive arguments whenever and wherever it is raised but I thought Willie's sincerity on the issue was somewhat weakened by his comments on the other issue which is dear to his heart, that of capital punishment. Willie wants to bring back hanging.

What about those people like the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Bridgewater Three and countless others who were wrongly convicted and would now be dead if capital punishment had remained on the statute books, he was asked in a later interview? Well, Willie replied, no system is perfect and much better that the occasional innocent person be hanged than the guilty remain alive. There you are now. I'm sure that inspires a lot of people. No doubt over the next five years Willie will treat us to more profound thoughts on his concern for life in all its various forms. By the way, Willie is also a lay-preacher. Surprise, surprise.

Some of the other radio comments were equally interesting or humorous. Reporting from Belfast City Hall on the morning of the count one reporter commented that he had been speaking to Alex Maskey about how he thought the count was going and how Alex was shy about giving any indication of whether or not Sinn Féin would win the seat. Back in the studio David Dunseath remarked on this extremely unusual phenomenon, a shy Alex Maskey. This, he said, was as rare an occurrence as a Tory who got elected.

Moving the studio discussion on to other constituencies David referred to North Belfast and how this seemed to be the only constituency where sex appeal was said to be a factor. He was not speaking, of course, of Cecil Walker but our very own Gerry Kelly. Fionnuala O'Connor disagreed with him and said this supposed sex appeal was not evident to her. That makes at least two who are apparently blind in this regard, the other being Ed Moloney writing in the Sunday Tribune the previous week. Maybe An Phoblacht should organise a phone-in on this topic. Does Gerry Kelly have sex appeal or not? Is he sexier than, say, Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness? If he had stood in West Belfast or Mid-Ulster would he have increased the vote? Could he even attract a cross-community vote by virtue of his particular appeal? These are issues which the Ard Chomhairle should take seriously when planning any future electoral strategy.

It appears though that while broadcasters and political commentators are free to interpret the election results and offer their opinions about the outcome on air they are not so ready to tolerate criticism of those same opinions. When Stephen Grimason of Radio Ulster said the election results were simply another tribal headcount an invited panellist challenged him. She (the only woman on the panel) said it was a derogatory statement about the electorate and their choice of who they voted for. Grimason was infuriated. Shortly afterwards a BBC official asked her to leave the studio even though she had been invited by the BBC to participate and offer her analysis of the results. It's hard to believe that these are the same people I have listened to being verbally bullied into silence by Paisley et al over the years. It certainly adds a new meaning to the slogan of `freedom of the media'. A freedom which is now apparently taken to mean the freedom to censor others.


RUC try to disrupt election

``THE RUC WAS INTENT ON provocation,'' said Sinn Féin's Sean McKnight after RUC raids on Sinn Fein election premises as voting was under way last Thursday 1 May.

The first raids occurred at about 4.30pm when a house in Ballymurphy being used by Sinn Féin election workers was hit. The RUC maintained they were looking for ``illegal election material'' being used for personation. After a fruitless search which lasted about 45 minutes they left.

During the RUC raid a large number of local people, angry at the RUC's behaviour, gathered but the situation was kept under control by Sinn Féin representatives.

``Had it not been for our party representatives giving responsible leadership the incident could have turned into a riot, something the RUC seemed to want given that they had up to 30 jeeps in the area,'' said McKnight who is the councillor for the area.

Two other houses in the Moyard area were also raided while a Sinn Féin election worker was beaten by British troops in an incident in Ballymurphy.

Later that evening, within minutes of Gerry Adams leaving a Sinn Féin tally hut in Jasmine End in Twinbrook, the RUC raided the premises. Again they used the pretence of searching for ``illegal election material'' but again found nothing. In the course of the raid the RUC ripped election material from the walls.

Sinn Féin election candidate in the forthcoming local elections, Paul Butler, again asked a crowd which had gathered not to ``play into the RUC's hands.

Go to the polling station, put your X beside Adams' name, that's the best way to deal with these people,'' he said.


SDLP tactics slammed

SINN FEIN HAS accused SDLP members of ``aggressive behaviour'' during last Thursday's election in West and North Belfast, constituencies where the party's vote was under pressure from Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin activists pinpointed three areas, Ardoyne in North Belfast and Lenadoon and Ballymurphy in the West of the city, where the SDLP challenged voters ``in an intimidating and aggressive manner'', they said.

``The SDLP seemed to have a deliberate policy of causing disruption,'' said Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Féin candidate in North Belfast. He said that SDLP officials whom he spoke to admitted that it would suit the SDLP to have polling stations closed down.

According to the reports we have received SDLP officials in the polling stations challenged a large number of voters, accusing them of personation.

``In one instance in Lenadoon, in Oliver Plunkett school, the SDLP representative, a community worker and candidate for the party in the council elections in Lower Falls, was aggressively challenging people. One woman who moved to the area recently was challenged and despite having valid identification was subjected to a humiliating experience as she was brought aside and the RUC were called in. They were trying to intimidate our voters,'' said Sinn Féin's Martin Livingstone. The woman's husband was also subjected to the same abuse when he turned up to vote later.

Meanwhile in Ardoyne SDLP personnel were warned by election officials to curb their behaviour in what was a bizarre attempt to prevent Sinn Féin representatives from marking registers. They claimed Sinn Féin was marking registers ``illegally'', but the presiding officer warned the SDLP about their behaviour.

SDLP tactics backfired in Black's Road polling station when the SDLP challenged a young person, a first time voter. The young woman was so aggrieved that she changed her mind and voted for Gerry Adams.


The 126,921 record vote

Begged, borrowed, stolen - it must be difficult being one of the 126,921 voters who supported Sinn Féin last week across seventeen Westminster Constituencies. For the 12th time since 1982 Sinn Féin have put up candidates in a Six-County election. The culmination of their support for Sinn Féin should have silenced the media and political pundits who have left no stone unturned over the last 15 years in their attempt to negatively interpret the impact of the party at the polls.

Whatever the interpretation of Sinn Féin's electoral performance which last week hit another record at 16% of the total vote, one thing is certain, Sinn Féin has become the central feature of the electoral process in the Six Counties. The results show clearly that the party has established itself as a potent electoral force across the Six Counties and that must bode well for the forthcoming council elections.

South Belfast 79% up on `92

East and South Belfast are some of the most difficult constituencies for Sinn Féin to canvass in. but even here the party was able to hold onto the gains won in last year's elections. In East Belfast Dominic Corr polled 810 votes while in South Belfast Seán Hayes held 5% of the vote with his 2,019 votes, slightly down on last year's Forum result but still double the 1992 total.

North Belfast 78% up on `92

In North Belfast Gerry Kelly managed to repeat his 1996 performance of nearly doubling the 1992 party vote. Sinn Féin won 8,375 votes, compared with 4,693 in 1992 and 7,681 votes last year giving the party over 20% of the total poll, neck and neck with the SDLP whose vote has only increased by 800 votes since 1992.

West Belfast 52% up on `92

The return of the West Belfast seat to Sinn Féin frames the party's performance in the city. The party's vote surged past last year's record vote of 22,355 to 25,662, almost 56% of the total vote, while Joe Hendron's vote was only marginally different from its 1992 level.

Newry Armagh 71% up on `92

The Sinn Féin performance in Newry Armagh shows perhaps more than any other constituency that voters view Sinn Féin as a dynamic force essentially different from the politics offered by the SDLP. Seamus Mallon held the seat, despite some moaning early on in the count that Sinn Féin's success at the polls could throw the seat into unionist hands. This had been the major platform of his election campaign.

Sinn Féin's Pat MacNamee took over 21% of the vote, garnering 11,218 votes, an increase of over 70% on 1992 and maintaining the momentum established in 1996.

North Antrim up 51% on `92

In the three constituencies of Antrim Sinn Féin again polled well. James McCarry took over 6% of the poll in Paisley's home constituency. His 2,896 votes was an increase on both 1996 and the 1,916 votes he won in 1992. Chrissie McAuley polled 543 votes in East Antrim.

South Antrim up 82% on `92

Henry Cushnihan won over 5% of the vote with 2,229 votes, more than 1,000 up on 1992 and an increase on last year.

South Down up 178% on `92

The 5,127 votes for Sinn Féin's Mick Murphy in South Down maintained the strong electoral performance established in this constituency by the party last year. His 10% vote share is more than double the 1,843 votes the party won here in 1992.

Foyle up 25% on `92

With almost 24% of the constituency vote Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin maintained the party's impressive electoral record in Derry. The party held onto the so-called stolen votes of 1996, improving on their 1992 performance when Martin McGuinness won 9,149 votes here.

East Derry recorded another strong electoral performance, maintaining the party's 9% vote share in this constituency. Malachy O'Kane's 3,463 votes was an increase on 1996.

Sinn Féin's vote in Lagan Valley at 1,132 was almost a rerun of the 1996 vote for Sue Ramsey.

Upper Bann up 107% on `92

Bernadette O'Hagan maintained the party's momentum in Upper Bann winning 5,773 votes, over 12% of the vote, an increase on last year and more than double the 1992 total of 2,777 votes. In Strangford Garret O Fachtna won 503 votes for Sinn Féin.

Gerry McHugh's 11,174 votes in Fermanagh South Tyrone gave Sinn Féin over 23% of the poll here, edging the SDLP into third place. In West Tyrone Sinn Féin's Vice President Pat Doherty garnered a vote of 14,280 in this new Westminster constituency. The vote was an increase of nearly 3,000 on 1996 and the party won over 30% of the constituency poll.

Mid Ulster up 98% on `92

Mid Ulster registered the most dynamic increase in the Sinn Féin vote as Martin McGuinness's campaign to bring the seat back to the nationalist community drew massive support. Sinn Féin won over 40% of the poll and with 20,294 votes were almost double their 1992 total and more than 7,000 votes up on 1996.

Apart from nationalist MP's in Fermanagh and West Tyrone the only unfulfilled objective now is perhaps that the 1997 election be the last Westminster election with Irish constituencies.


Historic days in words and pictures

One disillusioned SDLP activist admitted it had been Sinn Féin's day: ``You could see that they are the people's party. If only we could mobilise such boisterous support.''

Irish News, 3 May.


People like McGuinness are no pushover. They are not motivated by the desire for fame, fortune or political recognition. They are a lot more resolute, more capable of keeping their eyes on the big picture and a lot less corruptible than most constitutional politicians.

The Sunday Times gives rare praise to Martin McGuinness, Sunday 4 May.


[Sinn Féin] know how to win elections and they know how to celebrate when they win elections.

Barry Cowan on the scenes in Belfast City Hall after Gerry Adams's victory, Friday, 2 May.


The voters have put their faith in Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness's commitment to furthering the peace process.

Irish News editorial, Saturday 3 May.


An abberation... A blank cheque for the IRA and their activities.

Seamus Mallon, 2 May. 

The historic victories by the republican leadership in Mid-Ulster and West Belfast have dramatically changed Northern Ireland's political map... The onward march of Sinn Féin marks a historic turning point in the battle for hearts and minds within nationalism.

William Graham, political correspondent, Irish News 3 May.


I just can't believe it - I'm in the City Hall, in the Sinn Féin office, sitting under a Tricolour. The biggest thrill of all was to see the photograph of Pat Beag [McGeown] over the mantlepiece. He would have been a very happy man today because he was one of our best workers.

Joe Cahill, 2 May.


What we require of the new British government is a real and determined attempt to rebuild a new peace process in this country. This is the most urgent task facing the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Martin McGuinness MP, 2 May.


With flags and slogans City Hall was like a revolutionary commune.

Déaglán De Bréadún, Irish Times 3 May.


I've still got my thriving church and my gospel singing.

Willie McCrea, 2 May.


Sinn Féin has achieved its best election result for 40 years.

Daily Telegraph, 3 May.


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