The sun shone on Sinn Féin
Eoin O Broin witnessed the historic election in Belfast
Nobody really knew what would happen. Despite the optimism on the
streets of West Belfast in the run up to polling day, even the
most confident canvasser had to admit to a certain apprehension.
The election had been hailed as an historic turning point for
nationalists in the Six Counties. A Sinn Féin victory would make
history. The reverse side of the coin, seldom mentioned but close
to everyone's mind, was that a bad Sinn Féin result would have
more serious consequences than any election in recent times. The
stakes in this election were higher than ever before, and nowhere
more so than in West Belfast.
Harassment and intimidation from the RUC and loyalists on polling
day gave this apprehension an added edge. Bomb hoaxes, bullying
of election workers, raids on canvass caravans, and a heavy crown
forces presence in polling stations across the city cast a shadow
over the hottest day of the year. It wasn't just Sinn Féin
election workers who realised the importance of this election.
Some were willing to do as much as they could to disrupt the
Before the polls had even closed, suspense had set in and the
tension began to build. There was an eerie mood, a sense of
suspended animation over the constituency as I travelled home on
Thursday night. Even news of the landslide British Labour party
majority couldn't distract attention from the all-important
contest, West Belfast, although watching the blank stares of Tory
ministers Forsyth, Rifkind and Portillo getting their
come-uppance was a nice distraction.
Early Friday morning and Belfast's City Hall was unusually quiet
for an election count. Journalists desperately looked for
candidates or election workers to interview, but all were absent,
give or take a few marginal faces.
But shortly before noon a gaggle of Sinn Féin election workers
stormed the heart of Unionism; up the back stairs they positioned
themselves in every corner of the Gallery. They weren't going to
miss this show.
hour passed and not a word from the West Belfast count.
Rumours were circulating about every other constituency in the
North, but Adams and Hendron? Nobody knew anything. And the Sinn
Fein tally people were saying even less; such was their
By 2pm, the atmosphere had livened up. More journalists, more
candidates and more tension. Crowds of republicans huddled in
corners biting their nails and wringing their hands, eyes fixed
on the door of the West Belfast count. Every sight of Richard
McAuley or Sue Ramsey made hearts jump, expecting some news.
Just as the suspense was becoming unbearable, journalists bolted
towards the announcement room. Hendron appeared from the count
and, face downcast, headed in the same direction. Seconds later
Adams followed suit, but nobody was sure that his enigmatic smile
d as the official announcement made its way through City Hall,
25,662 for Adams and 17,752 for Hendron, tension gave way to
tears and then to jubilation, the air of expectancy and hope
became reality. It was as if nobody thought it possible, as if it
was all some kind of big shock. Adams was the new MP for Belfast
West. And a great bonus, his majority was nearly 8,000.
Someone said that Hendron got 6,000 votes from the Shankill;
another pointed out that this made Adams's share of the
nationalist vote even bigger. A third pundit, crying, informed
the crowd that the turnout was 74%; way up on last year. A fourth
called out the figure 1,556, all the votes for Ulster Unionist
candidate Fred Parkinson. The message was clear, even if Hendron
got all of these votes he still wouldn't have come near Adams.
As the Sinn Féin election workers and supporters prepared to
leave the building, the news of McGuinness's victory in
Mid-Ulster came through. Nothing was going to stop the Sinn Féin
crowd now, and as they spilled out into Donegall Place to be
joined by hundreds more, the meaning of the double victory was
clear. This election was [`was' in italics] historic. It
vindicated Sinn Féin's peace strategy and their leadership team,
despite all the demonisation in the media. It was the best answer
to those who would deny Sinn Féin voters their right to
representation and those such as John Bruton who claimed a vote
for Sinn Féin was a vote for violence.
Marching through Belfast city centre and up Castle Street to the
Falls Road, the crowd swelled. Who knows how many people were
there. We were all too happy to bother counting. Pavement to
pavement tricolours, thunderous cheers and chants and the
constant refrain of Labbi Siffre's `Something Inside So Strong'.
Gerry Adams was returned as MP for West Belfast, and from now on
neither unionist intransigence nor British government inactivity
can deny republicans their democratic rights. We have made our
choice clear, we want our mandate respected, and we want all
inclusive negotiations. Nothing else will do.
Sinn Féin looks set to win two new council seats in East and
South Belfast following the Westminster election results in those
constituencies. Both held on to the electoral gains made during
the Forum election in 1996.
In the Short Strand, in East Belfast, Sinn Féin polled 810 votes,
approximately 75% of the area's total vote. To win a council seat
only an additional 200 votes are required. Local representative
Dominic Corr said that ``the election of a Sinn Fein councillor
would be history in the making. It would be the first time this
century that the republican community of east Belfast would have
South Belfast registered just over 2000 votes. Sinn Féin
representative Sean Hayes said, ``we are on the verge of winning a
seat in Belfast city council, which would be an enormous
breakthrough for nationalists in this area. We have been
misrepresented by sitting SDLP Councillor Alisdair McDonnell and
Unionist MP Martin Smyth for the last number of years, and now
the time has come when the people of the Lower Ormeau Road and
the Markets area will have effective representation. All we need
to to is push our vote up to secure the seat.''
North Belfast vote up
By Mick Naughton
Gerry Kelly increased Sinn Fein's huge Forum vote of May last
year by almost another 1,000.
Kelly declared himself ``delighted'' with his party machine which
this year moved into the SDLP heartland for the first time. With
names like Ben Madigan Park and Chichester Park appearing on
canvas sheets the SDLP knew Sinn Féin was barking at their heels.
Sinn Féin is confident that Kelly's dramatic increase will
translate into more Sinn Féin seats in Belfast's City Hall on 21
Kelly's chances of taking the seat were dealt a blow when
loyalist parties pulled out, allowing for no repeat of the vote
shredding last year when the Sinn Féin man came within a whisker
of the DUP's Nigel Dodds. This time Dodds, along with the PUP,
Kelly, in acknowledging these tactical moves, was buoyant and
said that this year's terrific vote was putting down a marker
that Sinn Féin are set in the future to take what is speedily
becoming a marginal seat for the unionists given population
shifts out of North Belfast.
``In 1992 we polled 4,882 to the SDLP's 7,869, yet this year we
achieved 8,375, an increase from 11.34% to 20.20%. This is a
clear recognition by the electorate that our peace strategy is
working and of the hard work on the ground of our three
constituency offices is reaping rewards.
``The SDLP have nothing on the ground despite two decades of
promises that they would open a constituency office in North
Belfast. This false claim is recognised by the nationalist
population here, and I was pleased to receive warm support from
previous SDLP voters and non-voters. I want to thank both them
and our traditional supporters. They refused to listen to
nonsense from both Dublin and London and made up their own minds
during our intensive canvassing on the doorsteps.''