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
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
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
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
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
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.