Growing nationalist confidence in South Antrim
As the electoral battle for the South Antrim Westminster seat reaches its climax, CAÍTLIN DOHERTY takes a look at the real issues at stake
The electoral battle in the heartland of unionism is seen as one of the most challenging in recent times.
For fervent observers of the peace process, the issue dominating the election is the unionist infighting between two anti-Agreement dinosaurs.
But as the tension heats up, another phenomenon is clearly catching the eye of astute political observers: the rising tide of nationalism and the strengthening of the Sinn Féin vote.
The flurry of political activity these past few weeks and the encouragements from ordinary residents in Toome, Randalsontown, Antrim town and Glengormley is a sign of the determination of nationalists to tackle the legacy of unionist hegemony and sectarianism that characterises South Antrim.
Sinn Féin, by standing for the first time for a Westminster seat in a constituency with such a strong unionist majority, is sending out a clear message: ``The unionist dominance, the discrimination and intimidation of nationalists in this area must be actively challenged in all levels of life'', says Martin Meehan.
``We are determined to maximise the Sinn Féin vote in this constituency and strengthen the structures for the next elections'', he says. ``The politics of the two unionist candidates show why it is so crucial for nationalists to come out and use their vote.
``It is in the interest of all the people of the constituency to challenge the wrongs of the past and support Sinn Féin's efforts to bring about the full implementation of the Agreement and an end to sectarian politics. This is the work in which Sinn Féin is involved.''
The new wave of nationalist confidence that is sweeping the constituency has already manifested itself in recent by-elections.
Earlier this year, Sinn Féin swept a seat on the Antrim Borough Council. ``The SDLP had refused to support a co-option because they believed that they would take the seat from us'', says Meehan. ``That result showed that there is growing confidence in Sinn Féin and the party's policies. It also showed that Sinn Féin can take votes from the SDLP to strengthen our position in the constituency.''
Roisin McGurk and Aine Gribbon also contested by-elections in the Antrim and Newtownabbey parts of the constituency and polled surprisingly well.
Battle of ``No'' advocates
The other main consideration about the by-election is the lack of political diversity offered to the unionist electorate: McCrea and Burnside on many issues are one man.
In a cynical exercise, the UUP did not attempt to replace a ``No man'' with a candidate who would encourage the implementation of the Agreement and political progress. The selection of Burnside, a devoted Orangeman, appears to have been a tactical move within the UUP to ensure that more weight was piled onto the No wing of the party ahead of this autumn's debates on policing and other pillars of the Agreement.
If Burnside wins, as is expected, he will be guaranteed to be the ``enemy within'' who will be so useful to Trimble. The man who led the battle against any changes to the RUC and threw his weight behind the UUP's exclusionist politics at the time during the devolution crisis will do all he can to torpedo the implementation of the most important aspects of the Agreement.
His unionist credentials are intact. Burnside was dismissed from the UDR for writing inflammatory articles inciting sectarian violence and terror. He also regularly contributed to the Ulster Defender, a publication produced by the UDA, calling on people to ``defend themselves'' as, he wrote, there was a ``very real threat'' of communism taking over.
His mentor and Vanguard leader at the time was William Craig. Burnside, along with Reg Empey, helped destroy Sunningdale.
But the most publicised event in his career was his mighty downfall from British Airways, where he had been chief spokesperson. He was fired, and it is reported he was paid £600,000 for his silence in the BA verses Virgin ``dirty tricks'' campaign.
Last Thursday, whatever doubts may still have been lingering about his position on the Agreement were cleared up. After having refused to shake Martin Meehan's hand, he declared himself ``clearly and in black and white'' opposed to the Agreement.
The alternative to Burnside is the DUP's Willie McCrea, ``a political grasshopper who sees rick pickings in South Antrim after having been ousted by Martin McGuinness from the Mid-Ulster seat'', says John Kelly, Sinn Féin MLA for Mid-Ulster. The man associated with Drumcree, flags, sectarian and public outbursts has pledged to wreck the Agreement and the peace process. The election is viewed by DUP supporters as a chance to undermine the credibility of the UUP in such a traditional bastion of official unionism.
``The most alarming consideration is that the ordinary people of South Antrim are going to be left high and dry if either of these candidates are elected,'' said a Sinn Féin activist in the area. ``Burnside is a political animal with huge ambition but who has no intention of representing the ordinary people of Antrim when floating about the London millionaire circles with which he is so accustomed.''
``McCrea, on the other hand, is already a councillor in Magherafelt and an Assembly member. While he pledges to be close to his constituents and be in touch with the grass-roots, he is moving in a direction that is making this impossible because of the workload.''
RUC intimidates electorate
Sinn Féin has hit out at the RUC for attempting to intimidate voters in recent weeks. ``People who have totally legitimate reasons to apply for proxy and postal votes have been intimidated by the RUC's Criminal Investigation Department,'' says Martin Meehan.
The CID was asked to investigate claims of fraud during the Antrim Council by-election last February, after the SDLP narrowly lost the election.
``In these past seven years, there have been five sectarian murders in Antrim town by loyalists. To this day, there has not been one arrest or one prosecution over it. Yet the CID is deploying all its resources to carry out a concerted campaign of intimidation against voters,'' Meehan added.
South Antrim campaign update
The campaign trail was well on track in South Antrim on Tuesday night, 12 September. Sinn Féin Assembly member and party chairman Mitchel McLaughlin and Martin Meehan, candidate for the Westminster by-election took to the streets of Antrim town as part of an ongoing canvass ahead of the September 21 poll.
The longstanding Ardoyne republican, who has been actively involved in political, social and economic work in the South Antrim constituency in recent years, is standing against five other candidates, including the DUP's Willie McCrea and the UUP's David Burnside.
But as members of the election team were welcomed on the doorsteps and discussed policies with local residents, the DUP team was engaged in a very different type of activity. Several men emerged from a van to tear down Sinn Féin's election posters. Willie McCrea had earlier been spotted in the same van.
``Sinn Féin has shown the utmost respect for all other political parties,'' said martin Meehan ``Such tactics are typical of the DUP. They have no respect for any party or individual with a different view. This has to stop.''
Meanwhile, it has also emerged that the SDLP candidate has departed on a two-week holiday at the most crucial period of the electoral campaign.
Donovan McClelland's party has been consistently accused of under-representing the nationalist people of South Antrim, an area where sectarianism and the intimidation of nationalists is rife.