Republican News · Thursday 8 May 1997

[An Phoblacht]

Two days that shook the system

Micheál MacDonncha travelled to Newry for polling day and on to Omagh for the count.

Emerging into the sun - Martin McGuinness MP greets the crowds
outside the count centre in Omagh


Meanwhile in Belfast the celebrations are only beginning...


Thursday 1 May

The chudder of a British Army chopper could not drown out the blackbird singing outside my window. He had every reason to sing because the morning was perfect, promising a long bright sunny day ahead. When we arrived at the Sinn Féin caravan outside St Joseph's School the man in charge had already been there for three and half hours, from before the 7am opening of polls and ticking the early bird republican voters off his list.

On polling day political animals become obsessed with one thing - getting people to make the short journey from the comfort of their armchairs to the polling station. Most dedicated republican voters need little encouragement. By 10.35am they reckoned that about 70 Sinn Féin votes had been cast in this one station. The flow continued all morning as people walked past the RUC men who were sweltering in caps and flak jackets and eyeing the coming and going from the caravan.

There was no shortage of helpers. Voluntary workers appeared regularly and were dispatched to their tasks. Offers of cars and drivers were accepted and one woman even entrusted her keys to the election team. In contrast the SDLP had to pay people to put up posters and to act as polling clerks.

The holy scripture in the cult of electoralism is the register; marking it is the prerogative of those wise men and women who have been initiated in the rites of electioneering. In Newry the system Sinn Féin used was being tried for the first time but it was carried out with the assurance of veterans. Names were ticked off the list at a steady rate, with things slowing down a little in the afternoon. The real test would come with the evening rush.

A British army foot patrol made a brief appearance. Teenagers barely old enough to vote sprinted past the polling station with their rifles across their arms. Some of them weren't born when the 18 years of Tory rule began. Was it to them that the Alliance candidate's posters were directed? ``Abandon the trenches'' they said.

I slipped back to the house to catch the six o'clock news. UTV Live said there was a high turnout everywhere. Bombscares in Belfast were attributed to loyalists but they had no effect on the turnout. Women workers in Derry's Central Manufacturing Company were given a May Day present by their bosses; when they turned up for work they were told the factory was closed and their jobs were gone. On RTE Charlie Bird predicted that on 15 May John Bruton would call an election for 6 June. Another election.

But let's take them one at a time. Back at St Joseph's the rush was starting. People on their way home for work were going in. Now was the crucial time. The list of Sinn Féin voters had to be scrutinised to see who had not appeared so far. Workers were sent off in cars to knock doors and lift the voters. Local knowledge came into its own. The large number of people involved in the Sinn Féin operation meant that everyone was known to somebody.

As the light faded the list of non-voters dwindled down to the stragglers. There was a dash to get last-minute lifts. Only a handful of the targeted vote was left on the list now. A half hour to go before close of polls and already the operation was winding down.

Someone appeared with a gas lamp. By its light the figures looked good. They had got the vote out.


Friday 2 May

The road from Newry to Omagh is through the lush countryside of North Armagh and East Tyrone. It shimmered in green and gold this morning, the only blemish being the black sign pinned to a tree ``The Wages of Sin is Death.'' A more earthly reminder was the sign for Caledon. In that townland in 1968 bigotted unionists allocated a council house to a single Protestant woman. A Catholic family who were denied the house decided to squat. The protest led to the first Civil Rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon. The rest is history.

d the next chapter in that history was about to be written in the count centre in Omagh. In the big sports hall of Omagh Leisure Complex the votes from the constituencies of Mid-Ulster and West Tyrone were being counted. Downstairs was Fermanagh South Tyrone. I've attended many election counts in Dublin but this was a new experience. I was struck immediately by the crudity of the first-past-the-post system. There was none of the feverish tallying and number-crunching associated with proportional representation. Only Sinn Féin was attempting to do a tally, watching the votes being unfolded on the tables and counting the totals in each ballot box for the main candidates. But it was impossible to do an accurate job because the restrictions on access to the count meant that there were insufficient numbers of party workers to cover all the boxes.

I took a hand at tallying a box. The polling station marked on it was an Orange hall. The susbstantial number of people who put an X next to Pat Doherty's name must have got particular satisfaction voting Sinn Féin there.

The parties did have the key people in their election machines present but the lack of hard information early on turned the count centre into a factory that made only one thing - rumours. There were supposed to be bad signs from Mid-Ulster. The unionist turnout was so solid in response to Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness that the DUP's Willie McCrea might hold on. Sinn Féin and the SDLP were neck and neck in West Tyrone. No, Pat Doherty was ahead. Or was it the SDLP man, Byrne?

Worrying news was filtering through from Belfast of Gerry Adams struggling, a couple of hundred votes in it, the Shankill swinging it for Hendron. By 1pm the new British Prime Minister Tony Blair was already leaving Buckingham Palace and heading for Downing Street but in Omagh we were still waiting to find out the identity of three MPs.

The sun was splitting the concrete terrace outside. Above the car park a big water slide in Tory blue was a metaphor for the fate of John Major's party the night before as he watched MP after MP go down the plughole. Would someone here go the same way?

Paul Henry of Sinn Féin pointed to the big tally for McGuinness in a part of Coalisland that would not be regarded as a republican stronghold. Another straw in the wind.

There was rush to the TV set. West Belfast was about to be declared. Mixed company meant that the cheers of the Sinn Féiners inside the count were somewhat muted but from outside could be heard the celebration of the crowd already assembled in anticipation of the emergence of one or two of their own Sinn Féin MPs.

Unionist heads were down. When the returning officer declared Ken Maginnis elected for Fermanagh-South Tyrone there was not a clap or a shout. There were bitter words from Maginnis as he demonised the 11,174 people who voted for Sinn Féin's Gerry McHugh. The quiet-spoken Fermanagh man was unruffled and simply paid tribute to his voters and said that Westminster had never delivered for the constituency. An agreement with the SDLP could have elected a nationalist MP but the SDLP had ruled it out. But Sinn Féin was well and truly on the map here and would eventually reclaim the seat.

Back at the counting tables there was at last hard information about Mid-Ulster. It was possible to count the bundles of votes as they were stacked on the shelves. The shelves marked McCrea and McGuinness were filling up; Denis Haughey's cupboard looked bare. Every bundle was watched as it was carried from the tables to the shelves. Gearóid O hEara was the first to say ``We have it.'' More cautious types held their speak. But they knew that this was it. A new era was minutes away.

The result was confirmed to the candidates by the returning officer Mr Patterson. Someone pointed out that it was the same man who announced the election of Bobby Sands in 1981. Three days from Bobby's anniversary republicans were again changing the political landscape west of the Bann.

The candidates were called to the platform for the official declaration. Willie McCrea refused to come. When the figure 20,694 was read out after McGuinness's name a mighty cheer went up. The forest of TV camera tripods looked in danger of being blown away in the gale of republican jubilation.

The new Sinn Féin MP gave a clenched fist salute and his first tribute was to his wife and family. Then he praised the Sinn Féin election machine in Mid-Ulster ``the best in the country''. And he directed everyone's attention to the new British government which had been sent a very clear message.

The man who spoke at a rally in support of the now jailed `King Rat' Billy Wright refused to share a platform with the elected represenative of 20,694 people. McCrea pulled the microphone stand down from the platform and uttered five minutes of recrimination and dire predictions for the people of Mid-Ulster, with a passing compliment for John Bruton. A mischievous thought crossed my mind. I thought of that photograph of Danny Morrison smiling as Willie sang a hymn after he had beaten the Sinn Féiner by only 78 votes in Mid-Ulster in 1983. Then I remembered how in 1992 when Gerry Adams lost his West Belfast seat Danny had written from Crumlin Road Prison that some loyalist prisoner with a sense of humour had put up a sign saying ``Gerry out - Danny in.'' Now it was a case of ``Willie out - Billy in.''

``Two out of three ain't bad'' was repeated by more than one person in the crowd that had been waiting for hours in the brilliant sunshine outside the centre. Their waiting was over. After the West Tyrone declaration Martin McGuinness, Pat Doherty and Gerry McHugh swept outside to be greeted by hundreds of people waving tricolours. They were carried shoulder high to the cavalcade which would carry the new MP like an All-Ireland winning team.

It says something about the strength of Sinn Féin that the celebrations which followed in Omagh were tinged with disappointment that West Tyrone had not been won as well. Two Sinn Féin MPs, Willie McCrea ousted, an increased vote everywhere including West Tyrone, but it was still not enough. And these are the people whose expectations the British government has constantly tried to lower.


Defeated DUP candidate Willie McCrea utters bitter recrimination
as Tyrone republicans look on


The moment of victory - a salute from the new MP

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