The political temperature in the north of Ireland is increasing ahead of local and European election campaigns later this month.
A 60ft high sign reading ‘One Ireland One Vote’ appeared on Black Mountain this week overlooking Belfast, placed there by Sinn Fein’s republican opponents. The ‘united Ireland’ message conflicts sharply with Sinn Fein’s recurring policy demand of a ‘border poll’ on reunification, to be held within the Six County area only.
It is the latest in a series of political messages placed on the mountainside over the years by republican activists, most recently by Gael Force art, a west Belfast art collective.
Senior Belfast Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh has urged those behind the slogans to stop, describing them as “unsightly”. He said that his party had been behind some of the messages in the past, but that he was against them now.
“It’s nothing to do with Sinn Fein,” he said. “It’s a very small number of people who probably sold out years ago for various reasons who are now involved in this myriad of small groups, like the 1916 Societies.”
The Belfast branch of the 1916 Societies said the sign was timed to mark 98 years since Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the GPO in Dublin, marking the start of the Easter Rising.
“Our activists took to the hills above Belfast to bring our campaign to the people of the city and beyond,” a spokesman said.
“That campaign is ‘One Ireland, One Vote’ and we ask the people of Ireland on this, the 98th anniversary of the Proclamation, to lend their support to this worthy cause going forward.”
With elections at hand, political real estate is at a premium. In addition to the usual accusations of candidates’ posters being defaced or destroyed, new political murals have suddenly appeared this week, including two featuring Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Republican Network for Unity candidate in Belfast Tommy Doherty said he was “shocked” that a well-known mural in west Belfast, the Falls curfew mural, had been replaced by a new mural featuring Gerry Adams. “Fellow the Revolution, not the man”, he said.
Only a small number of republican candidates opposed to Sinn Fein have emerged to contest the local government elections in three weeks’ time.
Eirigi is fielding two candidates, both in Belfast, as is the Republican Network for Unity, while a small number of independent republicans are also competing in Derry, Lurgan, Newry and elsewhere.
One such candidate, former Sinn Fein councillor Davy Hyland, accused the PSNI this week of politically-motivated policing after 15 members of his campaign team were detained by the PSNI in Newry.
The now-independent councillor said he and a group of supporters were delivering election leaflets when they were stopped by the PSNI, and nine of them searched.
“We were wearing high visibility jacket with ‘vote number one Hyland’ on them,” Mr Hyland said. “We were carrying election literature and wanted to leaflet drop in a neighbouring estate and only had a certain amount of time.
“I asked if this was happening to any other political party and he said he said he didn’t have to answer any other questions.”
A total of 906 candidates will contest 462 seats across the north’s 11 enlarged council districts.
As expected, the DUP and Sinn Fein will field the most candidates in the local government elections with both parties putting forward nearly 200 potential councillors each. The SDLP has 119 candidates, while the Ulster Unionists have 117 and the cross-community Alliance Party 82. Jim Allister’s ultra-hardline TUV have nominated 50 candidates and the moderate unionist NI21, which is contesting its first election, 47.
Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson is the only republican candidate to contest the Euro elections, which are taking place the same day. A sitting MEP, the energetic former prisoner is expected to top the poll ahead of another incumbent, Diana Dodds of the DUP.
With five unionist candidates contesting the remaining two seats, interest is beginning to focus on whether the second nationalist candidate, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, can squeeze through the pack to oust the other sitting unionist MEP, Jim Nicholson of the UUP.
Republicans and nationalists alike are being guided by canvassers to give their number one and two to Anderson and Attwood, in their order of preference.
The other candidates in the election are: Jim Allister of the TUV; Mark Brotherston of the Conservative Party; Ross Brown of the Green Party NI; Anna Lo of the Alliance Party; Tina McKenzie of NI21; and Henry Reilly of UKIP.