Republican News · Thursday 8 May 1997

[An Phoblacht]

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 vote.

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 apprehension.

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 indicated victory.

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 proper representation''.

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 May.

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, pulled out.

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.''

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