29 May 1997 Edition
On the March
``Nationalism is on the march,'' said Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Féin's National Chairperson, when the first results of last week's ground-breaking election in the Six Counties were coming through. The historic election which saw Unionists lose control of four councils confirmed the confidence among nationalists that change is in the air. The days of Unionist domination are coming to an end. Freedom and equality are on the march.
Buoyed by those results, Sinn Féin is now looking to make gains in the 26 Counties. Sinn Féin candidates are reporting growing support - they are optimistic that a real breakthrough for the party will be confirmed when the votes are counted.
In particular, Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle member Caoimhghín O Caoláin is on course to be elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan.
The times they are changing
Sinn Féin made gains in 12 councils as the party vote surged to a record 16.9% share of first preferences.
By Peadar Whelan
THE SURGE OF VOTES TO SINN FEIN IN last Wednesday's local government elections has lifted the nationalist political boat to a peak never reached before. Sinn Féin made gains in 12 councils as the party vote surged to a record 16.9% share of first preferences.
In council areas throughout the North the swell of support for the party paid off for nationalists who gained overall control of six councils west of the Bann and saw history made in Belfast where for the first time the unionist parties lost control of Belfast City council.
With 13 seats on Belfast City Council and again the highest vote share in Belfast at 27.7% (up over 4% on the 1993 total), Sinn Féin voters in the city reaffirmed the party's number one status, even though the UUP still have the same number of councillors achieved by a lower vote share of 20.7%. This is created in part by the lower turnout in some wards. The quota to elect a councillor in Upper Falls was 2,331 compared to 1,603 in Victoria, a ward which elected one Alliance and six Unionist councillors.
However, there are some questions to be asked about the share out of council seats in some of the unionist wards. Why, for example, does a ward like Balmoral with a total electorate of 22,959 elect six councillors while Upper Falls with an electorate of 22,769 elects only five councillors. It seems that an extra 190 voters gets you more representation in Balmoral than it does in Falls. Belfast Court which has an electorate of only 17,243 elects five councillors the same number as Upper Falls where there the electorate is over 5,500 votes larger. Belfast Court returned five unionist councillors.
The party made dramatic progress winning 74 seats in 17 council areas, up a staggering 23 and although the majority of Sinn Féin gains were against the SDLP the new seats won in areas such as South Belfast and the staunchly middle class Castle ward in North Belfast demonstrates that the party's analysis and appeal has spread out of its traditional heartlands.
Even in the predominantly loyalist Ballymoney council Martin O'Neill took a seat while in Strabane the Sinn Féin vote increased by 79%; in Glenelly new boy Martin Conway romped home with 1,144 votes, a phenomenal 149% increase. The huge swing to Sinn Féin knocked the unionists for six and means a council which has for eight years been notoriously gerrymandered reverts to nationalist control on a 10 -6 count.
Cookstown council now has five Sinn Féin councillors, up two from 1993 and is another council that may for the first time in its history have a nationalist leader. In a reverse of last time out when there was a 9 - 7 unionist majority there is now a 9 -7 nationalist majority.
Sinn Féin is the biggest nationalist grouping in Fermanagh council, a position that reflects the efforts of Gerry McHugh in last year's Forum election and the Westminster election on 1 May where he out-polled the SDLP. However, with the unionist/nationalist divide at eleven each Progressive Socialist Davy Kettyles, ex-Workers Party, holds the balance of power.
In terms of the Sinn Féin/SDLP contest a dramatic swing to Sinn Féin where the party took three seats off the SDLP in Derry, the SDLP flagship council, and three more in Newry and Mourne, while in both Down and Armagh councils Sinn Féin took a pair of seats from the SDLP. In Dungannon Sinn Féin gained more first preference votes than the SDLP.
Sadly the SDLP has refused to accept the verdict of the ballot box, preferring to criminalise the Sinn Féin turnout, saying the swing to Sinn Féin was attributable to vote stealing and electoral malpractice.
To continue in that vein the SDLP will miss a great opportunity to reinforce these nationalist gains, especially at a time when unionist dominance is at its lowest point.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams speaking to reporters at the Belfast City Hall count put the result in context. He said ``There's a new era. We are going in with a very clear view that the institutions of local government should reflect the mandates of all the parties. As far as Belfast is concerned, it's the beginning of a new Belfast when all of the citizens should have the ownership of all its institutions''.
More cheers in City Hall
By Eoin O'Broin
Fourteen years have passed since Belfast elected its first Sinn Féin councillor, and it was fitting that the same man, Alex Maskey, should deliver the victory speech outside Sinn Féin's Falls Road offices after the party's success at last week's local elections.
After Maskey's by-election victory in 1983, Sinn Féin was the smallest political party on the council. Now, after winning 13 seats, Sinn Féin is the city's joint biggest voting block, neck and neck with the Ulster Unionist Party. Two of the party's gains were the fourth seat in Upper Falls where Chrissie McAuley out-polled SDLP hopeful Patricia Lewsley and Sean Hayes, who got home on the fifth count.
Standing in City Hall as the voting boxes were being opened, you could have been excused for thinking that the day's proceedings were of no great importance. The lobby was almost empty, except for a few over-zealous journalists, and security guards. Candidates and election workers were thin on the ground, with the exception of Sinn Féin, who once again occupied the cockpit of Unionist domination in Belfast. Little did they know that, within a few hours, Unionist domination would be gone for good, for the first time in the city's history.
As the results began to come through, shortly after lunch, the real significance of what was happening began to sink in. But until the score boards were written up, nobody could be certain what way things would go. Then the news rolled in. Chrissie McAuley took the fourth seat in Upper Falls, and Sean Hayes was in in South Belfast.
While most election workers expected to take eight seats in West Belfast, Sean Hayes victory was really the feather in the party's cap. After 15 years of hard work and disappointments, Sinn Féin finally broke through in the south of the city.
Talking to An Phoblacht a number of Upper Ormeau residents spoke of the importance of having Sinn Féin representation in their part of the city. If 13 seats across the city was epoch making, Sean's victory was itself a piece of history.
Even before the pollsters could add the totals for the city, Sinn Féin's vaunted election machine was marching down Royal Avenue, across Castle Street, and up the Falls. The crowd swelled in the blistering sunshine, as Alex Maskey described the last 14 years of work. Sinn Féin may have hit its highest electoral success, but the upward rise was a long way from its peak.
North Belfast Republicans storm home
By Mick Naughton
Before last week officials and councillors at Belfast City Hall were suggesting that sitting Lord Mayor Ian Adamson would be succeeded as Mayor by Ulster Unionist John Carson who has been a councillor for 27 years.
But something went wrong. It was called the North Belfast election squad, and one Danny Lavery. Younger brother of sitting Sinn Féin councillor Bobby, Danny was elected in the Castle ward in North Belfast. Against the odds he forced out the long time unionist Carson. SDLP chairman Jonathan Stephenson, another sitting councillor, was swamped in the surge of Lavery's election.
Even one-time SDLP councillor Brian Feeney wondered in Monday's Irish News how it happened: ``Seems incredible? Who would have thought Sinn Fein would get a seat in the Castle area of North Belfast?'', a staunchly middle class ward.
In victory Dan Lavery gave a nod to what North Belfast calls `the Kelly factor'. ``I mightn't be as handsome as Gerry, but with his success in the Forum and Westminster elections we were going places and given the fantastic response we got on the doorsteps I knew this could be our year,'' he said.
The victory was particularly sweet after the wife of SDLP councillor Alban McGuinness had told Sinn Féin canvassers to get back ``down the road'', that there were no votes here.
In the Oldpark ward, Sinn Féin's Mick Conlon and Bobby Lavery comfortably topped the poll with 2317 and 2230 respectively and Paddy McManus slid on to home base on their transfers. Sinn Féin transfers also saw the SDLP's Martin Morgan home. Progressive Unionist Billy Hutchinson and Ulster Unionist Fred Proctor took the remaining two seats in the six seater ward.
When Billy turned round on hearing a deep voice shout, ``Well done Billy'', he was shocked to discover it was that man Adams standing behind him.
As the three Shinners left the counting room a unionist summed up the mood ``the bastards have a brilliant election machine.''
All four North Belfast councillors come from the Seamus McCusker cumann, an historic first and a fitting tribute to Seamus who shot dead on constituency business by Workers Party gunmen in 1975.
East Belfast hits the crossbar
By Mick Naughton.
There was anger among Sinn Féin activists as they watched Worker's Party transfers go to the PUP and UDP at last Thursday's count for the Pottinger ward of East Belfast, which includes the Short Strand, an area decimated by the loyalist death squads.
The Short Strand came within a whisker of taking Sinn Féin's first seat in East Belfast as Dominic Corr polled 978 votes, an increase from the 810 he achieved during the Westminster vote earlier this month.
A handful of transfers would have secured this seat but with over half the SDLP's 309 votes going to the unionist Alliance party Dominic just missed having his bum on a City Hall seat.
That Mervyn Jones (Alliance) and Robert Cleland (DUP) had just managed to stay ahead of the Sinn Féin man said it all. Earlier in the day Jones had predicted that he was on the way out, and Corr would get in but was surprised at how the Workers Party transfers went, easing the way for the PUP and UDP while the SDLP transfers took Jones himself in.
Major gains in Newry and Mourne
By Brian Campbell
A few generations ago Newry was a Labour town. Then it was SDLP. Indeed, Newry has been one of their strongholds. Not any more. For the first time, the largest party in Newry is Sinn Féin. They got two councillors elected with Ann Marie Willis just missing out.
It is a similar story in South Armagh where Sinn Féin put up five candidates and got five elected. Comfortably.
Rostrevor man Mick Murphy completes the Sinn Féin team. He came home well over the quota.
The SDLP no longer has a majority in Newry and Mourne Council. As in Derry, where the SDLP also lost control, Sinn Féin's gains were important because they were in an SDLP heartland.
The initial SDLP response was to attribute Sinn Féin's best ever performance to vote stealing. In some ways, Sinn Féin is happy to hear that. It shows that their political opponents can't see what is really happening. The earthquake of political change of May 1997 has nothing to do with vote stealing.
There is an abundance of evidence from the Westminster and local elections to show that a new mood has taken hold among nationalists. One Sinn Féin canvasser in Newry knocked on the door of a woman who suffers from agoraphobia. ``I haven't been outside my front door for seven years except to put the clothes on the washing line,'' she said, ``but I'm going out to vote for Sinn Féin.'' Another canvasser was told at another house, ``we have always voted Alliance but after Drumcree we sat down as a family and decided to vote Sinn Féin. You can't be middle of the road in this country any longer.''
Certainly the Drumcree factor played a part in increasing Sinn Féin's vote. But Sinn Féin's opponents have held back from saying why. The truth is that Drumcree confirmed the Sinn Féin analysis of the Northern state. In the weeks after Drumcree last year republicans lost count of the number of times that people came up to them and said, ``You were right all along.''
The other side of that is that the SDLP was wrong. Most - not all - SDLP elected representatives had no wish to think too deeply about the flawed nature of the state. They tried to work within it and gain what they could, many even supporting the RUC, particularly in Newry. Drumcree blew their ideological world apart. They could not explain what had happened, much less do anything in response.
They are also a tired party - in Newry the SDLP had to pay people to put up posters and sit in polling stations. In Belfast students hired as SDLP polling agents were happy to spend the time in the polling stations revising for their exams.
By contrast, Sinn Féin has a tremendous electoral machine allied to hard-working elected representatives. The local election victories were a recognition of that record of hard work.
But above all, the vote for Sinn Féin was a vote for their peace strategy. There is a momentum now among nationalists which is moving towards change. And a confidence that change will happen.
Sinn Féin local election results 1997
Armagh: 2 new seats, total 3 seats
Poll Toppers: Brian Cunningham - Crossmore
Ballymoney: 1 new seat, total 1 seat
Belfast: 3 new seats, total 13 seats
Poll Toppers: Fra McCann - Lower Falls, Mick Conlon - Oldpark
Cookstown: 3 new seats, total 5 seats
Poll Toppers: Finbar Conway - Drum Manor
Craigavon: total 2 seats
Poll Toppers: John O'Dowd - Loughside
Derry: 3 new seats, total 8 seats
Poll Toppers: Cathal Crumley - Cityside
Down: 2 new seats, total 2 seats
Dungannon: total 5 seats
Poll Toppers: Vincent Kelly - Dungannon Town, Francie Molloy - Torrent
Fermanagh: 2 new seats, total 5 seats
Limavady: total 1 seat
Lisburn: 1 new seat, total 4 seats
Poll Toppers: Michael Ferguson - Dunmurry Cross
Magherafelt: 1 new seat, total five seats
Poll Toppers: Margaret McKenna - Moyola, Patsy Groogan - Sperrin
Moyle: total 1 seat
Newry and Mourne: 3 new seats, total 8 seats
Poll Toppers: Davy Hyland - Newry Town
Omagh: total 8 seats
Poll Toppers: Francis Mackie - Omagh Town, Patsy McMahon - Mid Tyrone
Strabane: 2 new seats, total 4 seats
Poll Toppers: Charlie McHugh - Derg, Ivan Barr - Mourne