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14 June 2001 Edition

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Three mandates for change : 4 MPs 108 Councillors No to Nice

Records fall as Sinn Féin vote surges

Four seats, 175,932 votes and unquestionably the largest nationalist party in the Six Counties, not to mention taking another substantial step towards becoming the largest party in the Six Counties. These were just some of the records set by Sinn Féin in last week's Westminster elections. The party made gains across the 18 constituencies.
ROBBIE MacGABHANN profiles the record Sinn Féin electoral performance by constituency while also analysing the changed electoral landscape throughout the Six Counties.

Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly increased the party's vote share by nearly 25% on the 1997 election. His 10,331 votes left Sinn Féin well ahead of the SDLP's Alban Maginness, whose vote share stood still at just under 21% compared with 20.39% in 1997.

Nigel Dodds turned in an impressive performance for the DUP, doubling their vote share in this constituency. The UUP's 11% of the vot,e while considerably down on their 1997 performance when Cecil Walker was the only unionist candidate, was in line with what the party won here in the 1998 Assembly elections.

Dodds won the votes of the PUP, UDP, the UKU and UU, who between them clocked up 20% of the vote in 1998. It is interesting to see the voters of loyalist parties who supposedly support the Good Friday Agreement electing a candidate who doesn't. But then they are supposed to be on ceasefire too.

East Belfast

Peter Robinson, came home the victor as expected here. His 42.5% of the poll was slightly down on 1997, so no surge to the DUP in this part of the heartland. The UUP vote was only marginally down too from 25.33% in 1997 to 23% this time around. This was all the more impressive as the UUP Enterprise Trade and Investment minister Reg Empey was not running, leaving the field to Tim Lennon. The PUP's David Ervine didn't run here in 1997. He won 13.6% of the vote here in the 1998 Assembly elections. This time the PUP vote share was 9.96%.

Sinn Féin's vote share increased to 3.36%, with Joe O'Donnell polling 1,237 votes.

South Belfast

The DUP gave the UUP a clear run in this constituency and Martin Smyth increased his vote by over 8% of the total poll to stay ahead of the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell, whose vote share also grew to 30.59%.

Sinn Féin Assembly member Alex Maskey also increased the party's vote in this constituency from just over 5% of the total poll in 1997 to 7.63% this time around.

West Belfast

Did we predict the Sinn Féin vote passing the 60% mark? Well `passing' was perhaps not the right word. Gerry Adams' 66% vote share shattered the party's previous best while also setting a record for vote share across the 18 constituencies. The SDLP vote slumped by nearly 20%. Enough said.

North Antrim

The DUP swing here was just over 3% and Ian Paisley was returned again as MP. The UUP vote was down 2.69% on 1997. Sinn Féin's John Kelly polled well. His 4,822 votes were just less than 10% of the poll, an increase of 3.53% on 1997. This was all the more impressive considering the nationalist opposition was Assembly minister Sean Farren, whose vote rose by less than 1%.

South Antrim

This constituency returned the DUP's Willie McCrea in a by election last year but this time the UUP's anti-Agreement candidate David Burnside won the seat back for the party. The UUP's vote was nearly 2% up on 1997, while the DUP's fell by just over 3%. Sinn Féin's Martin Meehan won 9.42% of the vote, up over 4% on the 1997 showing.

East Antrim

The predicted DUP surge came close but could not unseat sitting UUP MP Roy Beggs. In the end there was only 128 votes between Beggs and the DUP's Sammy Wilson, whose vote was up 16.59% on 1997. One unanswered question is how many Alliance voters switched to the DUP. The Alliance vote fell by 7.72% of the total poll.

Sinn Féin's Jeannette Graffin won 903 votes, 2.51% of the poll.

South Down

The SDLP's Eddie McGrady held the seat but saw his vote slip by 6.56% while Sinn Féin's vote jumped 9.38% to 10,278, 19.74% of the poll. Mick Murphy pushed UUP Assembly minister Dermot Nesbitt into third place. The UUP vote fell mainly because there was an agreed unionist candidate in 1997.

North Down

It was bye bye Bob, as we predicted in North Down. The UUP had outpolled McCartney's UK Unionists in the 1998 Assembly election, so the end was nigh for the anti-Agreement Assembly member. The tactical withdrawal of the Alliance gave the UUP 56% of the vote. Sinn Fein's Eamon McConvey won 313 votes.

Newry & Armagh

Once again, the sitting SDLP MP was returned, but like the experience in South Down, not without Sinn Féin eating into the party's vote. Seamus Mallon's vote was down 5.62% on 1997. Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy took 17,209 votes compared to 20,784 for Mallon, a showing expected locally but not foreseen by the pundits and setting an important marker for next time. The party's 30.94% of the vote was nearly 10% up on 1997.

Lagan Valley

Jeffrey Donaldson was one of the few sitting UUP MPs to increase his vote, albeit by a narrow margin. There was no DUP surge here. Sinn Féin's Paul Butler nearly doubled the party's vote compared to 1997. His 2,275 votes came to 5.93% of the total poll.

Upper Bann

The DUP's bogus recount call dominated the Upper Bann poll even though UUP leader David Trimble had a 2,000 vote majority over his DUP rival. The ignored story was the continued gains of Sinn Féin's Dara O'Hagan, who increased the party vote share to 21.1% of the total poll, a 9% gain on 1997. The SDLP vote share fell by 9%.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone

17,739 votes, 34.13% of the vote and just 53 votes ahead of the UUP's James Cooper was enough to win this seat for Sinn Féin. Michelle Gildernew's vote jumped by nearly 11% on the party's 1997 vote share. The UUP vote fell by 17%, partly because of the entry into the field of anti-Agreement unionist Jim Dixon. The SDLP vote fell by just over 4% of the total poll. The UUP are crying foul, not because they suddenly realise the unfairness of the first past the post system, but because of claims that polling booths were open too late. How many other parties who rant on about democratic principles would complain about people voting?

West Tyrone

The Dublin media decided that West Tyrone was where the battle for leadership of the nationalist community would be fought. But the positive profiles, column inches and airtime given to the negative SDLP campaign mounted by Brid Rogers mattered not as it was Sinn Féin vice president Pat Doherty who pulled away to win this seat comfortably.

Sinn Féin polled 40.83% of the total poll, 19,814 votes, a 9.97% increase on 1997. Both the UUP and SDLP vote share fell, as Sinn Féin opened up a 5,000-vote gap on the UUP.

Mid Ulster

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness secured an absolute majority in Mid Ulster as the party opened a 9,953-vote gap between them and the DUP's Ian McCrea. Yes, he is the son of Willie. The Sinn Féin vote grew by 11% while the DUP and SDLP registered falls of just over 5% each.


John Hume held this seat as expected for the SDLP, registering a vote share of 50.2%, just over 2% down on 1997. Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin ran in second with 26.57% of the vote, up 2.63% on 1997. The DUP vote fell because of the entry of the UUP into the contest.

East Derry

``I want to thank almighty God for the tremendous victory''. This was the voice of the DUP's Gregory Campbell, whose 12,813 votes and 32.14% of the poll won him the East Derry seat from the anti-Agreement UUP member Willie Ross. Interestingly, Campbell's victory was the lowest vote share across the 18 constituencies. Why bring this up? Well, in his acceptance rant Campbell said: ``The British Government need to understand the votes of the people''. So how does he rank the 67.86% of people who didn't vote for him in the constituency? It must be unionist democracy in action again.


The DUP's Iris Robinson took this seat with 42.84% of the poll, 1,110 votes ahead of the UUP. Sinn Féin's Liam Johnstone won 930 votes for the party, 2.15% of the total poll.


How the West was won


``Look at the way Sinn Féin pull together. They're all here cheering each other on. Mid Ulster clapping West Tyrone on the back and the two of them rooting for Fermanagh South Tyrone. They'll wait all day for each other.''

These are the words of an SDLP candidate, speaking as she watched Sinn Féin's outstanding Westminster election performance West of the Bann. And it's obviously a winning combination, hard work and comradeship, the cornerstones of Sinn Féin's electoral success this week. Bairbre de Brún put it another way - the party had a vision for the future and that vision engendered enthusiasm.

The Sinn Féin Minister was responding to repeated references to Sinn Féin's `military discipline' and efficient `electoral machine' by commentators, still clinging to the notion that a vote for Sinn Féin was somehow qualitively different, perverse, if not exactly criminal.

Of course some of our political opponents fell back on the worn out complaints of intimidation and fraud but as Brid Rodgers found to her cost, negative campaigning is not only unattractive but no longer viable within a northern nationalist community looking for change - or, in the words of Frank Connolly of the Sunday Business Post, ``refocused on the long held aspiration for equality and fundamental constitutional change''.

Even Ruth Dudley Edwards, a bitterly anti-republican voice, had to admit to the northern nationalist electorate, ``Sinn Féin is cool; Sinn Féin is sexy; Sinn Féin is energetic; Sinn Féin is the future.'' Of course, Dudley Edwards views that future with repulsion but then she also thinks Orangemen are decent upstanding citizens, if a little misunderstood.

But on one point we were all agreed. Election 2001 marked a seismic shift in political influence and power, one which has ramifications beyond the north of Ireland. Establishment commentators tried to label this in terms of an unfortunate drift towards the two extremes, as if the DUP's undermining of David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party is comparable to Sinn Féin's gains at the expense of the SDLP.

It's a neat equation but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It's political nonsense to equate the turmoil and fragmentation within unionism with the continuing consolidation of nationalist political power and aspirations translated into electoral support for Sinn Féin.

As Frank Connolly pointed out, the SDLP's ``post nationalist rhetoric simply did not register within the nationalist community, whose impressive turnout has strengthened Sinn Féin and its peace strategy immeasurably.''

In the Westminster election, Sinn Féin successfully returned two sitting MPs, Gerry Adams in West Belfast and Martin McGuinness in Mid Ulster and gained two more seats, Pat Doherty for West Tyrone and Mitchell Gildernew for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

In West Belfast, Gerry Adams' huge vote clearly reflected a personal endorsement of a genuinely popular figure as well as support for Adam's stewardship of Sinn Féin's peace strategy. With the largest majority in both Ireland and Britain, Adams even outpolled British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose personal vote of just over 26,000 gave him a 64% share of the vote and less than an 18,000 majority, figures all marginally lower than those of the Sinn Féin President.

But Sinn Féin's focus was much closer to home. While Adams had increased his vote from 1997 by over 10%, the SDLP's vote had further collapsed with a decline of almost 20%. Alex Attwood polled less than 8,000 votes, taking less than a derisory 19% of the vote.

Indeed, the SDLP's election campaign had all but conceded to Sinn Féin in West Belfast, with Attwood abandoning his own constituency in favour of campaigning for Brid Rodgers in West Tyrone. The SDLP was paying the price of putting the peace process before party, said the defeated Attwood, but it was more excuse that explanation and he looked as if he knew it.

And in West Tyrone, that sacrifice had been all in vain. Brid Rodgers had been mooted as the SDLP's dream candidate, parachuted in from Upper Bann to West Tyrone to throw down the gauntlet to Sinn Féin's candidate Pat Doherty.

As an elected member of the Assembly, Doherty had four years of local constituency work behind him and a dedicated team of workers rooted in the local area. Rodgers had the bias of the British press and a high media profile in the wake of Foot and Mouth. The SDLP's strategy put personality before political graft and it failed.

As part of their negative campaigning, the SDLP had adopted a reference by the British media which labelled West Tyrone as their ``Stalingrad''. It was to come back to haunt them.

While Pat Doherty gained the seat for Sinn Féin with a vote just short of 20,000, taking over 40% of the vote and increasing his vote by almost 10%, Bríd Rodgers suffered a humiliating third place. ``It may be your Stalingrad but it's our West Tyrone,'' said Doherty in his acceptance speech. One of his supporters called out that it was the SDLP's Waterloo and the hall erupted into laughter and cheers.

As Adams had predicted, the greening of West of the Bann was being realised. In Mid Ulster Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness was returned with over 25,500 votes, and a 10,000 majority. Taking over a 50% share, McGuinness increased his own poll by over 5,000 votes, an increase of over 11%.

But Sinn Féin's finest hour was also the latest. It was after 10pm and we were waiting for the last result of the entire Westminster election to be declared. Earlier in the day, in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildnernew had secured a lead of around 50 votes but the Ulster Unionists called for a recount. Republicans throughout the 32 Counties were on a knife edge.

Politically, Sinn Féin would have been content with taking just three seats, but here was a fourth and, on the 20th Anniversary of the 1981 Hunger strikes, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat held enormous emotional and historical significance.

Twenty years ago, hunger striker Bobby Sands took the seat with over 30,000 votes and became the `People's Own MP'. To take back Bobby's seat on the anniversary of the deaths of humself and his comrades held particular poignancy. At twenty past ten on Friday night, when Michelle was duly declared the winner, it was the jewel in Sinn Féin's electoral crown - a moment which Danny Morrison recorded as one which ``moved me most and made me feel immensely proud to be an Irish Republican and part of a brilliant community''.

Polling just under 18,000 votes and an increase in Sinn Féin's vote of almost 11%, Michelle Gildernew stepped into the annals of Irish history and became the first Sinn Féin woman to be elected to Westminster since Countess Markievicz in 1918.

But Sinn Féin's electoral success didn't end there. Four seats were secured but there were other victories to celebrate and build upon. With a poll of over 10,000, Gerry Kelly had put Sinn Féin's vote ahead of the SDLP in North Belfast. Dara O'Hagan in Upper Bann, polling over 10,500 and almost doubling her vote since 1997, increased Sinn Féin's share of the vote by over 9%, while the SDLP's share dropped by 9%.

Meanwhile David Trimble, UUP leader and Assembly First Minister saw his majority dwindle to less that 2,000, his vote fall by 3,000 and his percentage share of the vote decrease by more than 10%. But perhaps most significant of all, in Newry and Armagh Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy was snapping at the heels of SDLP deputy leader and Assembly Deputy Minister, Seamus Mallon.

As Maol Muire Tynan of the SBP reported, Mallon had been forced into ``slugging it out with a little known Sinn Féin candidate called Conor Murphy. That struggle was perhaps the SDLP's nadir - worse even than Brid Rodgers' crushing defeat.''

Sinn Féin had ``edged so effortlessly ahead of an ailing, aging SDLP,'' wrote Eilis O'Hanlon of the Sunday Independent, ``as to make one almost pity the elder party's bewildered ineptitude in the face of it.''

But while the SDLP are licking their wounds, Sinn Féin is already focusing on the future. ``And with 21.7% of the North's vote,'' writes Jim Dee of the Boston Herald, ``Sinn Féin is now within five points of overtaking the UUP itself as the largest political party in the North.''


Sinn Fein's new century 


Sinn Féin reaffirmed its status as the largest party in Belfast, with 28% of the vote and 14 seats, one more than in 1997. In 1983, less than 20 years ago, Alex Maskey was the sole Sinn Féin member on the council. Alex Maskey held the Sinn Féin seat in Laganbank, as he moved from the relative comfort of running in Upper Falls.

Sinn Féin took four seats in both Upper and Lower Falls and three in Oldpark. Joe O'Donnell took a historic first seat in Pottinger and Danny Lavery was elected in Castle.


Sinn Féin's vote grew by 6% across Armagh Council, giving the party five council seats, up from three in 1997. Sinn Féin won new seats in the Orchard and Crossmore wards.

Newry and Mourne

Sinn Féin came out as the largest party in Newry and Mourne, with 39% of the vote, up 12% on 1997 and with five new councillors bringing the party's vote total to 13. Seats were added in Newry Town, The Mournes, The Fews and Crotlieve.


Two Sinn Féin councillors now sit on Antrim council. Martin Meehan was re-elected in Antrim North West while Martin MacManus added a new seat in Antrim South East. The party vote share rose 9% to 13% of the total poll.


Sinn Féin's six councillors and 33% of the vote, up 4% on 1997 makes the party the largest on Cookstown council. The party added one more council seat to the 1997 tally.


A doubling of the party vote and council seats in Down left Sinn Fein with four councillors and 17% of the total vote. Sinn Féin gains were in Ballynahinch and Newcastle.


Yet another council with Sinn Féin as the largest party. The party vote share was up 9% to 40% of the total poll. Two new council seats brought the party numbers to eight. The Sinn Féin gains were in Mid and West Tyrone wards.


A 2% increase in the total vote and some good vote management raised Sinn Féin's vote share to ten seats on Derry Council and 30% of the total poll. No other party made seat gains in Derry. The Sinn Féin gains were in Derry Rural and Northlands.


Sinn Féin won its first seat on Moyle Council. Monica Digney came home in the Glens ward on the sixth count. Sinn Féin took 10% of the total poll, up 3% on 1997.


Two new councillors and an 8% increase in the total poll reaffirmed Sinn Féin's position as the largest party on Magheraelt District Council. Sinn Féin won 44% of the votes and seven seats. The gains were in the Magherafelt Town and Sperrin wards.


Once again Sinn Féin's vote share reached 40% of the total poll, up 7% and with three new councillors is the largest party on the council, with seven seats. The Sinn Féin gains were made in the Derg and Mourne wards.


Sinn Féin took 16% of the vote in Lisburn, up 2% on 1997. The party retained its four councillors in the Dunmurray Cross ward.


Three new councillors and a 15% jump in the total vote share to 25% gave Sinn Féin four seats on Limavady council, making them the joint largest party with the SDLP. The Sinn Féin gains were in the Benbradagh and Bellarena wards.


Four new councillors and a 10% vote increase made Sinn Féin the largest party on Fermanagh Council. The party won 33% of the total vote and nine seats. Gains were made in the Enniskillen, Erne East and West wards.


Sinn Féin took 21% of the total vote in Craigavon, up 9% on 1997 and the party doubled it council seat numbers to four. The gains were made in the Loughside and Portadown wards.


A 6% increase in the total vote brought Sinn Féin three new seats on Dungannon district council. The party's eight seats and 36% of the total vote make it the largest party on this council. Gains were made in the Dungannon Town, Clogher Valley and Blackwater wards.


Briege Meehan held a seat for Sinn Féin in the Antrim Line ward. The party's vote share at 5% was unchanged on 1997.


Sinn Féin's Philip McGuigan was elected on the first count in the Bann Valley ward of Ballymoney council. This new seat was won through a 6% increase in the vote, leaving Sinn Féin with 11% of the total vote.

In other councils, Sinn Féin took 4% of the vote in Larne, 2% in Castlereagh, 4% in Banbridge and 1% in Ballymena.


They couldn't ignore this one

An Phoblacht's MICHAEL PIERSE analyses the media spin on this week's historic votes, North and South, and finds very different opinions

What a belter of a week to be a republican. Sunday World political editor Seán Boyne got it right - ``It was the week when Sinn Féin found itself on a political roll, north and south of the Border.

``In the North, the party dramatically doubled its number of Westminster MPs - it now has four. In the South, the Shinners played an important role in the rejection of the Nice Treaty, and are now poised for a political offensive on the Dáil in the next general election.''

This opinion was not shared by the Irish Times on Monday, where there was the contrived omission of virtually any coverage of Sinn Féin's role in the Nice result. Two pages of the Times had photos of the Greens, the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and Dana, who all opposed the Nice Treaty, yet there was barely a passing refence to Sinn Féin's role.

Boyne, on the other hand, noted the correlation between Sinn Féin's presence on the ground, and the geographical spread of No votes. ``In constituencies where Sinn Féin has a strong political presence, the No vote against Nice was noticeably larger,'' he wrote.

The huge No votes in Dublin Central and Dublin South West, where both Nicky Kehoe and Seán Crowe, respectively, will be standing for Dáil seats, were a clear indication of Sinn Féin's impact south of the border. Add to this the fact that Kehoe shares his constituency with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and one can see why Fianna Fáil are rattled. The Sunday World termed the Nice Treaty vote a ``Kick in the ballots'' for Bertie Ahern.

John Burns and Brian Dowling in The Sunday Times refuted some of the allegations Ahern had made about elements of the `No' campaign. Bertie's primary allegation, made as a last, scrambling effort to further confuse an already bewildered electorate, was that elements of the `No' campaign (not including Sinn Féin) had received $100,000 from right-wing American fundamentalists.

Anthony Coughlan, a highly-respected lecturer at Trinity College and campaigner on the `No' side, knocked Ahern's comments with an honesty and earnestness that has certainly been lacking in Fianna Fáil's own financial affairs.

He paid for full-page adverts in national newspapers with money from a pension lump sum. ``It was a level of commitment that nobody in the Yes campaign displayed,'' the Sunday Times journalists reported. ``Fianna Fáil even had to pay people to put up its posters; the No camp was run by hundreds of volunteers.

``That the Irish government should squabble about posters in the last day of a crucial referendum campaign was symptomatic of the confusion and incompetence that bedeviled their efforts,'' Burns and Dowling concluded.

The Star was possibly the staunchest example of media actually upholding the voice of the people, rather than lambasting them, amongst the daily papers. The paper had carried an editorial urging voters to reject the Nice Treaty prior to the referendum and continued afterwards with fair coverage of `No' campaigners. Commenting on the Dublin government's assertion that the treaty will not be renegotiated prior to another referendum, the paper was critical of what it saw as a condescending attitude towards the electorate. ``It's high time they realised that the Government is the servant of the people - and not the other way around. There is no point in coming back to the electorate with a Treaty we already rejected.''

Diarmuid O'Flynn in the Examiner attacked governmental and establishment pomposity. ``Proinsias de Rossa, that working-class hero, felt people didn't understand what it was all about. Those poor thick peasants, God love us,'' he mused. And what of Alan Dukes of Fine Gael's assertion that the electorate were confused because there were three referenda on the one day? ``What patronising crap,'' O'Flynn curtly put it. ``Most of us juggle a multitude of problems every day of our hard-working lives.''

Coverage of the elections in the Six Counties was predominantly focused around the demise of the SDLP and the suffering of the UUP at the hands of the DUP.

The Sunday Business Post predicted the imminent retirements of both Séamus Mallon and John Hume of the SDLP, in which case the ``eclipse'' of that party as a political force becomes a ``possibility, if not a probability''.

Arthur Aughey, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, lamented in the Sunday Mirror the shift from what he termed the `middle ground'. He had innocently expected ``consolidation of the middle ground'', but what happened was the emergence of a ``very different dynamic''. ``Years of struggle'' from the embattled SDLP, was being ``stolen'' by Sinn Féin. ``Far from a consolidation around a centrist style of politics what we appear to be witnessing is a polarisation around a radical style of politics.'' Revolution, I believe, is the correct term.

The Sunday Independent, as usual, was less impartial than its name suggests. 105.5 per cent of the electorate had voted, according to its erroneous statistic on page 3. Eilis O'Hanlon, traditionally an implacable republican baiter, nevertheless reflected that the SDLP should have accepted Sinn Féin's proposal of an electoral pact and ``accepted whatever scraps it could scrounge''. While O'Hanlon and others at the Sindo are renowned for their bitterly anti-republican leanings, one cannot help but savour the humorous vitriol with which they write, when its not directed towards oneself. ``Hume may still insist Sinn Féin has `absolutely and totally and completely' no chance of becoming the dominant voice voice of Northern nationalism,'' O'Hanlon observed, ``but his optimism ignores one crucial factor. They just did.''


SDLP in crisis


The SDLP are finally facing the long-feared likelihood of their political oblivion. With the success of Sinn Féin candidates in both parliamentary and local elections, John Hume and his party colleagues are searching for reasons to explain their eclipse as the main nationalist party in the Six Counties.

Rumblings about the feasibility or desirability of Hume's continued leadership have been heard although, save for Tom Kelly, head of the party's Communications Group, few are reluctant to demand outright that he make way for someone new. In any case, there are precious few potential candidates who could command the sort of personal following Hume has traditionally enjoyed. Almost none of the SDLP's remaining seats could be said to be entirely safe, including Derry which, should Hume decide to retire, would almost inevitably be secured by Mitchel McLaughlin.

Mark Durkan tried to explain the stagnancy of the SDLP vote in the general election - particularly in Belfast - by claiming that it was ``taken for granted'' by an ungrateful electorate who didn't know what was good for them and who obstinately decided to vote for Sinn Féin in large numbers. He also claimed that the party knew before the election that Sinn Féin would come out of it ahead, an assertion which does not quite tally with John Hume's pre-election statement that his party would undoubtedly reassert itself as the voice of nationalism.

According to Durkan, the SDLP decided to sacrifice itself for the greater good. ``We could have been selfish as a party and went for a pact with Sinn Féin but we didn't because to do so would have hurt Trimble's chances,'' he claimed. ``In reality, Friday was part of the pain that we have suffered as a party that is trying to support and protect the agreement.'' As it was, however, all the supposed sacrifices did little for either Trimble or the Agreement. Moreover, Sinn Féin is also trying to support and protect the Agreement and it did spectacularly well in the election. Perhaps a more accurate picture would be that the SDLP has taken its voters for granted, rather than the other way around.

Some people lower down the party's hierarchy are, however, a little more realistic about the SDLP's shortcomings and less disparaging about Sinn Féin voters. They are edging towards the overdue practical recognition that it is predominantly middle-class, out of touch with voters, particularly young people, and far too willing to shore up Unionism, especially in the Assembly. Its capitulation to British government and unionist demands on the RUC is a case in point and is an issue on which it will have lost countless votes. John Hume's pat-on-the-head paternalism and often patronising attitude to working-class nationalists may have been tolerated - even admired in some quarters - 20 years ago, but it is entirely out of step with how the electorate expects to be treated now.

Further, as Tom Kelly pointed out, John Hume's idea of a post-nationalist Ireland has not played well - although he did not acknowledge that this may be principally because voters recognise that the term post-nationalism, as the SDLP would define it, has simply come to mean giving up on pursuit of a united Ireland, a position that vast numbers of nationalists of all ages are not prepared to adopt.


Blair's mandate most important



In the wake of Sinn Féin's electoral successes in the Six Counties this week, the party's president, Gerry Adams says that the ``main mandate to watch'' this week is that of Tony Blair's Labour government.

Adams was speaking as a Sinn Féin delegation prepared to enter Leinster House for talks with the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Negotiations with the British and Dublin governments will take place in the coming weeks, he said. The outcome of these negotiations will depend largely on the commitment of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

``The main mandate to watch is the Tony Blair mandate,'' he said. ``If he cannot now face up to his responsibilities in relation to the Good Friday Agreement and in relation to the wider historical relationship between these two islands, then what hope is there?''

David Trimble and his resignation threat is not to blame for the difficulties currently dogging the peace process, he said. ``I don't blame him for exploiting the room he was given for manoeuvre. Tony Blair is the man who can create the conditions to convince all sections of the political spectrum, including the anti-Agreement unionists. He is the key player in all of this.''

However, Sinn Féin will not tolerate Trimble's ban on the attendance of ministers Bairbre de Brún and Martin McGuinness at cross-border ministerial meetings, he said. ``I don't intend, for one moment, to negotiate the suitability of the Minister for Health or the Minister for Education. I see it as a matter of principle that they have those positions because of their mandate. In the same way as I would respect the mandate of David Trimble or Ian Paisley.''

Of Sinn Féin's electoral successes, he felt that, above that of her fellow Sinn Féin MPs, Fermanagh & South Tyrone representative Michelle Gildernew's success was the most symbolic. ``For me, the jewel in the crown of our achievement last week was the election of Michelle Gildernew to the seat won by Bobby Sands. Many of us were very emotional.''

Asked by An Phoblacht how he would respond to SDLP leader John Hume's allegations that Sinn Féin will ``never'' be the main voice of nationalism in the Six Counties, Adams said that that SDLP is not a nationalist party itself.

``The SDLP isn't a nationalist party,'' he pointed. ``It is a `Northern Ireland' party, a social democratic party. There are nationalists in it - good nationalists in it.''

Post-nationalism, the philosophy the SDLP have claimed they adhere to, is a fallacy, according to Adams. ``Post-nationalism is both factually and politically wrong. I don't know of anyone who actually understands it.''

Asked whether he saw the Nice Treaty results in the 26 Counties, especially high `No' polls in Sinn Féin strongholds, as an indicator of future electoral successes there, he said he does not view the Nice Treaty in that way. ``We will get the votes, hopefully, because we deserve them.''

Calling for a renegotiation of the Nice Treaty, Adams said that the attitude of the Dublin government following the referendum results has been inappropriate. ``For the government to say we're confused, or they're embarresed, or to apologise to other European states for our vote is wrong.

``If the pro-Treaty parties are embarrassed by the result, they are embarrassed by the democratic vote of the people. The government needs to tell Europe that it cannot accept the Nice Treaty. They need to withdraw from the Partnership for Peace and the Rapid Reaction Force and make clear that Irish sovereignty needs to be defended, not diluted.''

There was an irony in the establishment parties' reaction to the `No' vote, Adams suggested. ``These are the people who used to preach to us about democracy. Their reaction is to blame each other. They are missing the point. The point is the people voted `No' and it is their duty to uphold that decision.''


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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