By Jack Holland
A Northern Irish election is in some ways a curious affair. It is in actual fact two more or less separate elections — one, a contest within the Protestant community, and the other within the Catholic community. That is, the primary, and most important political battles are fought not across the sectarian barricades but behind them.
These dual contests, between competing varieties of Unionists and competing varieties of Nationalism, are struggles to resolve which variety within each community will become dominant. Some believe that this, the first British general election of the millennium, will witness Sinn Fein overtake the SDLP as the main voice of Northern Irish nationalism.
The parties are entering the election with Sinn Fein holding two seats, Mid-Ulster (Martin McGuinness) and West Belfast (Gerry Adams), and the SDLP three, Foyle (John Hume), Newry and Armagh (Seamus Mallon) and South Down (Eddie McGrady). Important battles are being waged in West Tyrone, Fermanagh-South Tyrone and North Belfast. All three are currently held by Ulster Unionist Party MPs, and all three are seen as especially vulnerable. But the outcome of the contests depends on the vagaries of how the vote splits for the Unionist as well as the Nationalist candidates.
Some Irish and British government officials privately believe that both Fermanagh-South Tyrone and West Tyrone are "Sinn Fein’s to loose." Though Fermanagh-South Tyrone, has a clear Nationalist majority, it was held by Ken Maginnis, a trusted supporter of UUP leader David Trimble. Maginnis is not running this time around. James Cooper has replaced him but is now facing the prospect of a major split in the Protestant vote, thanks to the reentry of Jim Dixon into the fray. Dixon, an Independent Unionist candidate, running on an anti-agreement ticket. This should ensure that either Michelle Gildernew for Sinn Fein or the SDLP’s Tommy Gallagher will retrieve the seat for Nationalists. The seat has been seen as pro-republican since Bobby Sands won it while on hunger strike in April 1981, getting more than 30,000 votes. Before that, it was held by Frank McManus, an Independent Nationalist, so the constituency has a lean toward the republican candidate.
In West Tyrone, Sinn Fein and the SDLP are running a close contest. The fact that there is a single Unionist candidate, Willy Thompson, who is anti-agreement, makes the outcome uncertain. The Sinn Fein candidat, Pat Doherty, was thought to be a definite winner until the SDLP parachuted Brid Rodgers into the battle. Rodgers as minister of agriculture in the devolved government has become one of the most prominent figures in the party, thanks to her campaign against the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. Insiders speculate that the decision to field Rodgers was partly motivated by the SDLP’s desire to revenge itself for what happened in Mid-Ulster in the general election of 1997. Then Denis Haughey, the hard-working SDLP candidate for that seat, was deprived of his chance of victory when Sinn Fein sent in Martin McGuinness, who took it from the DUP’s Rev. William McCrea.
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However, a close contest between Sinn Fein and the SDLP could hand the seat to the Unionists. In the 1997 election, the combined Nationalist vote was 29,000. An even split between Doherty and Rodgers, would almost certainly ensure Thompson, who polled over 16,000 votes then, of another victory.
That is, the only way that a Nationalist can be certain of winning the seat will be if either Rodgers or Doherty establishes a commanding lead.
In North Belfast, one of the two Nationalist candidates, Alban Maginness (SDLP) or Gerry Kelly (Sinn Fein) has only an outside chance of claiming the seat from Cecil Walker of the UUP. Walker is facing a strong anti-agreement challenger in the form of the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. The aging UUP man has held the seat since 1983 without making a speech in parliament. During a televised debate last week, he appeared to be befuddled by questions, claiming afterward that both of his hearing aids were malfunctioning.
In the 1998 assembly elections, Sinn Fein took 21.3 percent of the vote to the SDLP’s 21.1. The UUP managed to secure only 10.9, far behind the DUP at 21.3 and just marginally ahead of the pro-agreement Progressive Unionist Party, which had 9.2. With these kinds of figures, and the PUP out of the race, North Belfast could swing any way. Most likely it will be in the DUP’s direction.
Whatever happens in North Belfast, Sinn Fein is still capable of winning two more seats to bring its Westminster total to four. This would put it ahead of the SDLP for the first time and realize an ambition it conceived as far back as 1983.
Certainly, it would be a demoralizing blow for the party of John Hume and its aging leadership. Hume is 64, and many think that the only reason he is standing in this election is to keep Foyle from falling into Sinn Fein hands. Mallon his deputy is 65, and McGrady, the only other SDLP MP, is 66. An adverse result would encourage younger party activists to demand a revamp of the party’s upper echelons before they are completely swamped by their more dynamic challengers.