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9 May 2002 Edition

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Morgan tipped for Louth seat

There was more good news for Sinn Féin this week as a poll in Louth commissioned by the Argus/Drogheda Independent Group predicted that Sinn Féin's Arthur Morgan will take a seat in the border constituency.

The poll placed the Sinn Féin County Councillor at 14.87%, putting him in prime position to oust Labour TD Michael Bell. Party workers, already reporting very positive feedback from their canvass, will be buoyed by this further confirmation of that growing support for Sinn Féin.

A poll in this week's Dublin's Southside People also suggested that Seán Crowe will take a seat in Dublin South West, perhaps even at the expense of Labour's Pat Rabbitte, who pollsters were surprised to find may be in trouble, despite his high national profile.

This follows the previous week's poll prediction that Martin Ferris is looking good for a seat in Kerry North.

None of Sinn Féin's Leinster House hopefuls will be getting carried away with these polls. They know that May 17 is the vote that counts but there is a growing confidence among republican activists that Sinn Féin will indeed be the story of this election.

Trying to ring-fence Sinn Féin

Since the election started I have listened to and seen Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún in the Dublin-based media talking about fairly routine matters arising from the peace process. Why can't we hear them with the same frequency speaking about election related issues?
Did you ever feel someone doesn't want you or that somone is trying to reject you? Did you ever feel someone is trying to make you feel you don't quite fit in? Did you ever feel disconnected to what is going on around you? These are the feelings I had as we entered week two of the election campaign.

This sense of alienation from the election here was brought on by the near absence of Sinn Féin, especially Gerry Adams, from the media, in particular RTÉ television and radio, the Irish Times, Independent and Examiner.

Despite the fact that Sinn Féin in the South has one TD, 57 councillors and in the North four Westminster MPs, over one hundred councillors and 18 Assembly members and has led the peace process and helped change the face of Irish politics over the last few years, party press conferences and daily statements are practically being ignored by some very important secions of the media.

Sinn Féin has more votes nationwide than the PDs, the Greens and the Labour Party, yet apart from the extensive coverage of our manifesto launch, these other parties have featured more in the media.

I've been involved in many elections in the Six Counties. I've fought the bias against Sinn Fein with a fair few editors in my time, but I detect here a higher level of bias and hostility against Sinn Féin.

We have justifiably received a high level of coverage from the media and the political establishment here for our role in the peace process, so I have no complaint on that front, but Gerry Adams is running second only to Bertie Ahern as the most popular politican yet he is not receiving one tenth of the coverage Bertie is getting.

It is too easy to dismiss this criticism as media bashing. It isn't. There is a high degree of media management going on. Since the election started I have listened to and seen Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún in the Dublin-based media talking about fairly routine matters arising from the peace process. Why can't we hear them with the same frequency speaking about election related issues?

I saw a welcome and sizeable photograph of Martin Mc Guinness in Tuesday's Irish Times. He was on a walkabout in Dublin's Temple Bar, where thousands of young people were at a festival. It was an ideal opportunity to show Martin talking to young people. The photograph showed him standing alone. That is not the photographer's fault. That is news management.

Why for example did the media, outside of North Kerry, ignore an opinion poll that put Martin Ferris as leading the poll there? Had the poll been telling a different story I suspect it would have been the lead item.

Is it the case that a section of the media has decided to ring fence Sinn Féin to commenting on 'northern' events only? Are sections of the media here trying to play a role similar to that played by the Belfast-based media during the conflict when they thought the way to limit Sinn Féin's growth was to hold them publicly accountable for the IRA's activities?

What also brought on this sense of detachment was the constant use by politicans and media of the word 'national'. Whatever else, this part of my country is, it is not 'national'. I live in Belfast, so how does the last government's 'National Development Plan' affect me or its 'National Health Strategy' improve my lifestyle? At a push, I'm prepared to accept a national stadium because all the people of this island can benefit from it.

There are 32 counties in this nation, not 26. And more importantly, there are one and a half million people living in the other six. The wrong use of the word makes them feel 'outsiders'.

Developing this theme, it is easy to understand why partition works in various ways. The media plays a big part in shaping our views. And preoccupied as I am with listening to the TV and radio in the course of this election, I have occupational choices to make. So it's RTÉ, INN, The Irish Times, Independent and Examiner and the tabloids. I couldn't believe it but days passed before I realised I hadn't read an Irish News or listened to the BBC and UTV.

Corruption and sleaze flickered briefly to life when Bertie brazenly and warmly embraced the disgraced O'Flynns, father and daughter, in Castlebar and when he was ever so eloquently mauled by Vincent Browne on his late night radio chat show. Browne slowly roasted him for half an hour over a spit of facts and figures indicting several TDs and others for corruption. I was suitably impressed. But not so my private taximan. He heard what I heard and amazingly concluded: politicans are all 'lining their pockets' but 'Bertie's not like that. He's a local man'. The 'teflon' Taoiseach escapes again.

This week took me to two other constituencies, Joe Reilly in Meath and Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin West. Joe's constituency is worth watching closely. It's a five-seater and he is a very popular councillor. He could upset everyone's plans but Sinn Fein's. In Dublin West I was in the company of a dynamic duo, candidate Mary Lou Mc Donald and Maria Doherty. Watching them operate their key election workers was impressive. Confidence, competency and a commanding presence is how I would describe this formidable pair.

Suddenly atop my double decker bus I was thrown back in time when I was confronted by the face of a youthful Dick Spring up a lamp post. This isn't North Kerry, I thought. It's Dublin Central. Did I miss a coup in the Labour Party? Has Dick replaced Ruairi? No there's a simpler explanation. A strapped Joe Costello, Labour candidate has his photograph on one side of posters from the 1997 election, when Dick was leader of the Labour Party.

The indefatgible press officer, Dawn Doyle, can breate a sigh of relief this weekend following the launch of Sinn Féin's manifesto on Tuesday. Only she knows the blood, sweat and tears involved in that production.

One of her team, Mark McClarnon. produced another sound bite gem. He described the debate about costings of manifestos as 'fortune telling economics'.

As we go to press I'm ending this article on a similar upbeat note to last week's. An opinion poll in Louth has Arthur Morgan taking the second seat there. Welcome news this is. What's the betting it won't see the light of day outside the Louth press, just as Martin Ferris' poll didn't see the light of day outside North Kerry.


 Sinn Féin's mythical machine

Last week, a Kerryman poll indicated that Martin Ferris will take a seat in Kerry North at Fianna Fáil's expense. Ferris is understandably reluctant to put too much faith in polls, but he is confident of success nonetheless. In the weeks before the poll, An Phoblacht's MICK DERRIG spent time in the constituency. This is his report.

When I had shadowed Pat Doherty on his victorious election campaign in West Tyrone much was made from the perspective of Dublin newsrooms that the contest was between the "magic and the machine". Readers were regaled with stuff like "there is a whiff of magic about West Tyrone and that magic is Brid Rogers".

Doherty won and the triumph that appalled Dublin 4 was put down to the crushing effectiveness of the "Sinn Féin machine".

My experience in Tralee and the rest of Kerry North found no sinister machine, only as dedicated a collection of working class people as it would be possible to find within these islands, working for a shared political goal.

From Director of Publicity Donal Cusack who worked through personal bereavements and Garda arrest, to Gerry Riordan in the shop whose mobile phone plays 'Some say the Divil is dead' to organiser Risteard Ó Fuaráin, I found not one Libyan trained canvasser.

Nor was this Belfast Sinn Féin put into crates and shipped south. With the exception of Paul Henry from South Derry, this was a completely Kerry operation.

Gerry told me proudly - with mock vainglory - that he was Director of Canvassing; actually there were days when he thought he might be Director of feckin' everything!

Every night at 6.30pm, the Sinn Féin office in Moyderwell was like a Japanese subway carriage. Young and old, men and women, lined up for their clipboards. Gerry, a Sinn Féin member for 30 years, told me that his mobile phone was on 24 hours a day.

Inured to years of proscription and censorship, the republican cottage industry that gets the message out was in full swing by the time I arrived in Tralee. Gerry showed me newsletters that were going through every door in the constituency. People were up at 6am through till 9am posting them through letterboxes every morning until the entire constituency was done. There was a general newsletter; one for health, women, and the list went on.

Every night at 6.30pm, the Sinn Féin office in Moyderwell was like a Japanese subway carriage. Young and old, men and women, lined up for their clipboards
The "machine" is actually a group of people bound together by an idea that is at the core of republicanism's irreducible dissidence on this island. That is a belief that somehow, someday, things can be different on this island for working class people. No sleaze, no poverty and no second class Taigs in the North.

The thing that seemed to be galvanising these people canvassing St Brendan's Park on a beautiful night wasn't the Garvaghy Road, but specifically southern issues. For sure, their worldview on the national question was a given, but the reasons they gave for knocking on doors for Martin Ferris were thoroughly local. There was far more talk about bribes in the South than pipe bombs in the North.

Martin Ferris's past is transparent in Tralee and it didn't seem to bother many people. This estate, I was reminded, was solid Dick Spring country. I got the same feeling that I was witnessing a seismic political shift as I did when I followed behind Pat Doherty in rock solid SDLP country in a leafy Omagh cul de sac to witness Brid Rogers' vote disintegrate and defect.

The constituency, of course, isn't only Tralee.

The day I went to Listowel I was to meet up with Martin Ferris and speak to him for the third time in as many weeks. While I was waiting for him, I spent half a day around the Sinn Féin nerve centre in Listowel.

I was looked after by Tom Harrington, in all probability a '40s man by the look of him - another generation hardened by state repression. But for the political parties who are in something close to an alliance against Sinn Féin, perhaps the most worrying aspect is the extent to which the republicans have youth on their side.

I also interviewed Tina O'Shea. Another stalwart of the nightly canvassing effort, this Presentation girl is already being headhunted to do interior design work. She has her sights fixed firmly on a degree to qualify her in this field. Her portfolio is already attracting attention. Her dad, an ex-hospital porter, is a Sinn Féin activist and is currently a youth worker in the town.

Sinn Féin in Kerry is managed by Risteard Ó Fuaráin. A 30-year-old newly married native of Causeway, this graduate quality engineer is in overall charge of Sinn Féin's growth in the entire county. His place in the scheme of things is to "pretend that no election is taking place, just to work away recruiting, building the party and so on".

His first experience of Sinn Féin testing itself at the polls in North Kerry came in the 1997 Dáil election. He was sceptical about the party's chances. "I thought we would get a respectable 4,000 number ones and that would give us a chance to build for the future," he said. In fact, Sinn Féin got 5,691 number ones. "This time the campaign is much more intense - there are greater expectations."

Risteard himself ran for the county council in 1999 in the Listowel electoral area. At the time, he was working for a company in Shannon and every night, he would drive the 180-mile round trip to canvass the area and then return to do another day's work. He polled 715 number ones and will stand next time. His unpaid work for the community doesn't end with being a republican. He is a member of the Ballyheigue Inshore Rescue Service, driving a fast rescue boat. Somehow the Celtic Tiger Me! Me! Me! phenomenon passed this guy by. His community, you feel, are the better for it.

Unpaid work, a sense of community, helping others, volunteering to take part in rescue operations, this is the sort of young man that builds the stable, safe communities that we all want to live in. Sadly, those entrusted with public safety don't view Risteard in that way. In his own quiet, reserved, completely convincing way, he recounted a litany of episodes of petty garda harassment - usually around driving.

Donal Cusack, Martin's Director of Publicity (always a poisoned chalice at any level of Sinn Féin), said there was evidence of an attempt to drown the Sinn Féin campaign in blank cheque largesse over the past few months. Estimates vary between €70 million and €100 million that the government has diverted into Kerry North, but the message is clear. They will spend heavily to prevent a Sinn Féin TD.

Donal was quite clear that both the carrot and the threat of the stick has been used to soften up an electorate that is clearly considering giving Sinn Féin one of the three seats. For the Sinn Féin activists themselves, the carrot has been conspicuous by its absence. Only the stick seems to be in evidence. But there is a confidence and expectation about that no amount of petty harassment can blunt, the energetic canvass underway on the highways and byways is reminiscent of this writer's best memories of the West Tyrone campaign.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1