IOL: Election results settle Sinn F?in nerves

Election results settle Sinn Féin nerves
28/11/2003 - 17:14:22

A day before Northern Ireland’s Assembly Election, Sinn Féin candidates were getting twitchy.

“Our canvass returns are frighteningly good,” South Down candidate Caitriona Ruane confessed as she accompanied party leader Gerry Adams on a walkabout on Belfast’s Antrim Road.

“I’m amazed at the response we’re getting. We appear to be getting a lot of first preferences in what were previously SDLP homes.”

Sinn Féin strategists needn’t have worried.

This week’s election was yet another triumph for the party’s slick election machine.

Canvassers had knocked on doors for months in target constituencies, identifying waiverers and nurturing the vote.

They were working from a system devised by Sheena Campbell, a rising star who was gunned down in October 1992 by the Ulster Volunteer Force in the bar of a South Belfast hotel.

The ‘Torrent Strategy’ helped deliver Francie Molloy’s victory in a 1990 council by-election and has been a proven success over 13 years.

One party worker explained: “It’s a tried and tested system. We mark green for yes, yellow for maybe and white for no.

“That enables us to identify our vote and nurture it. It’s a system we have used on both sides of the border.”

As Sinn Féin left the SDLP stumbling in its wake, workers were entitled to feel proud as the party scooped up Assembly seats.

Former Belfast Lord Mayor Alex Maskey broke new ground in the south of the city, taking a seat from the Women’s Coalition’s Monica McWilliams.

Conor Murphy delivered three seats in Newry and Armagh while Gerry Kelly and Kathy Stanton both came through in North Belfast.

Folk singer Francie Brolly not only lived up to expectations by becoming an MLA in East Derry but the party managed to out-poll the SDLP for the first time in the constituency.

The party’s most sensational result was in North Antrim, where victims spokesman Philip McGuigan took a seat in the Rev Ian Paisley’s heartland from the Ulster Unionists.

Add to that near misses in Lagan Valley, Foyle and West Belfast where the party’s bid for five seats was thwarted by the Democratic Unionists and you have a party which could justifiably claim to be the major voice in nationalism.

With Sinn Féin making breakthroughs in SDLP strongholds such as South Down, the party will be confident of more electoral success, fortifying new seats and targeting new ones.

Nationalist SDLP members were putting a brave face on their disappointing showing.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan and his colleagues blamed a drop in the Assembly Election turnout but admitted the party needed to reorganise.

But as the SDLP looked to the next General Election, it was clear it was facing a tough battle to hold onto its slender 1,532 vote advantage over Sinn Féin in John Hume’s constituency of Foyle in this election and its 3,915 lead in Eddie McGrady’s South Down.

As he waited to see whether Raymond McCartney and Mary Nelis would join him in the Assembly, Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin believed a sea change had occurred.

“I think you could argue a baton has been snatched in this election by Sinn Féin from the SDLP,” the Foyle MLA said.

“In many ways it is reminiscent of the emergence of the SDLP in the 1970s at the expense of the old Nationalist Party.

“What we are also witnessing with the rise of the four big parties – the Ulster Unionists, DUP, SDLP and ourselves – is a new political phase where the national question is coming centre stage.

“People are voting for pro-Union or pro-united Ireland parties.”

Mr McLaughlin believed the rise in the republican vote was a reward for Sinn Féin’s efforts to deliver a lasting peace.

And with the Democratic Unionist Party emerging with increased clout, the Foyle Assembly member was disputing claims that the success of both parties spelt doom for the peace process.

“I think there is change occurring in the DUP – change in terms of the flagging control and dominance of the Big Man (Ian Paisley) over the party,” he said.

“Clearly the pragmatists and the progressive elements within the DUP leadership are beginning to make their presence felt and were able to sideline Ian Paisley during the election campaign.

“It looks like we may be entering the beginning of the end of the Ian Paisley era.

“Unionists and nationalists will increasingly focus on the constitutional future of this island and republicans will go into those discussions with confidence, strengthened by our mandate.

“There may be people in the DUP now who are saying they will not talk to Sinn Féin but they will.

“The Ulster Unionists once said no and ended up talking.”

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