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29 April 2010 Edition

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Canvassing both sides now

AS I STOOD beneath a UVF flag on the edge of an estate chock full of frothing loyalists, looking at the head of the local UVF as he decided whether he was going to kill me, I have to admit it did cross my mind that you didn’t get these problems in Cork. Oh sure, sometimes you’d get a bit of abuse on the doorstep but you’re not likely to be beaten to death with an iron bar of the sort the man with the Rangers top had waved at me five minutes ago.
I lit another cigarette and passed one to my companion, the local Sinn Féin councillor. It was his fault we were here. In a town that was 95% nationalist, he’d had the bright idea to do a leaflet drop in the sole loyalist estate.
His argument was that even though it was so hardline it made the Shankill look like Lourdes, some of the people who lived there had come to his clinic. There were no unionist councillors in the town and the local SDLP chap was functionally illiterate so, once or twice, women (always women) had nervously crept into his office and asked for help with the council.
He figured if we did a leaflet drop we might pull out a dozen votes out of the 200 that was in it and in a race this close it might make the difference. And so we slipped in, middle of the afternoon, quick leaflet drop and we’re out again.
But both our drivers were convinced their councillor and the “wee girleen from Cork” were in the other lad’s car. It took them 20 minutes to get back to the election office and realise their mistake. During that time the candidate and I had become aware that youth unemployment was a really big problem in working-class loyalist estates, judging by the number of young men in their early 20s who had come out to watch us.
They didn’t wave.
After a few minutes, they made calls on their mobiles. Shortly afterwards, a car pulled up with three men in it and one of them got out. Our Harp-drinking friends helpfully pointed us out and he stared at us.
I didn’t feel like waving.

THE candidate sucked in his breath. “I know that lad,” he said quietly. “He’s one of your constituency cases is he?” I asked, with more than a trace of sarcasm to cover my growing nervousness. “Come to give us a lift home?” The candidate shook his head. “He’s a UVF boy. He’s a bad bollocks.”
I looked back over. You don’t see many UVF men growing up in a tiny village in Cork. They tend to holiday in Tipperary. Nenagh and places like that.
I was so caught up with staring at him in horrified fascination that I jumped when the councillor put his hand on my shoulder. “Julia, I need you to listen to me now,” he said slowly, looking directly at me. “If that car comes up here and they get out, I want you to run. Don’t look back, just run like hell and I’ll try and slow them down.”
In fairness to him, it was a pretty noble gesture. I remember being a little teary-eyed when I looked right back at him and said, “No way – I’m going to stick with you.” He gave a sad but proud, kind of smile and nodded. “Fair enough, lass.”
I drew deeply on my cigarette. No way was I running – I was out of shape and wearing heels. I wouldn’t get a hundred yards. If that car pulled up I’d have one chance and one chance only: I was going to push our candidate to the ground and put the boot in. With luck, the loyalists would think I was some sort of UVF Mata Hari. I practised saying the words ‘Die, you Fenian Taig’ in my head. Wait a minute. Is it ‘Taig Fenian’? Curse my ignorance of Ulster Scots.
Be assured, by the way, I was thinking only of the party. This was a really, really tight race. If our candidate died at the hands of a loyalist mob it might be enough to push us over the quota and, frankly, a lot of us thought his wife would have made a better candidate anyway, as well as helped our gender profile.
“Here they come!” the councillor shouted. I reacted immediately, grabbing his arm and bracing myself to swing him to the ground. “It’s our lads,” he added jubilantly.
I looked up. The loyalists were still calmly watching us and two car-loads of Shinners had just pulled in. I let go of his arm and cleared my throat, putting on my best innocent look.
Two shakes later we were in the back of one of the cars and away home. Behind us, the loyalists watched us go with utter indifference. I settled back into the car seat, listening as the councillor told the others how I’d been so relieved to see them I’d nearly knocked him to the ground with the hug I gave him.
Yes... hug. In fairness, though, it would have been tough to explain to the Comhairle Ceantair.

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