A Handful of Nationalists

By Danny Morrison

The first I ran for election was in Mid-Ulster twenty-one year ago. When I was introduced to the constituency a man called John Joe Quinn from Pomeroy asked me if I really wanted to win. I said, ``Of course I do''. We were sitting in his kitchen and he said, ``Then listen to what I am going to tell you.'' He told me things I knew, things I took for granted, but it was refreshing and educational to hear these things spoken from the lips of a man who had been involved in many elections. He had worked in the Tom Mitchell campaign in 1955 when the IRA prisoner was elected MP for Mid-Ulster by just 260 votes. He worked for Bernadette Devlin in 1969 when for the same constituency she became the youngest MP ever elected. ----- EXTENDED BODY:

John Joe told me that our forbears had struggled, marched and fought for the right to vote in order to have some say in their lives. That the right to vote was conceded grudgingly, first to Catholics who owned property but who could only vote for Protestant representatives. That the franchise was slowly extended over a period of a century (only latterly including women) but that even then, and subsequently, it was people with money and influence, who had a hold over people's lives through employment or trade or religion and who could sway elections in favour of the establishment and status quo.

He told me that these `opinion makers', were later supplanted as ordinary people gained confidence to speak for themselves and represent themselves. He spoke in that earnest but slow Tyrone way which left you thinking that he personally had witnessed two centuries of struggle!

In concrete terms, we all know what happened. Unionists were happy and contented with a united Ireland as long as Irish nationalists hadn,t the right to vote, the right to shape things according to the wishes of the majority. When they did get the vote and demanded Home Rule unionists threatened civil war and armed the UVF with weapons from Germany (with whom Britain would soon be at war). The British government ignored the opinion of the majority of Irish people, partitioned the country and handed over power to the unionists in the North who then set about rigging local government boundaries and getting rid of PR elections to ensure that they remained in power in perpetuity.

But that power was broken, albeit at a heavy price in lives and suffering all around.

Today, nationalists feel confident about themselves and have a sense of their own stature. They have aspirations they believe can be realised whilst at the same time they appreciate the trauma that real change and the demand for equality is having on the unionist people who were brought up to believe in their own supremacy.

Today, there are scores of thousands of unionist voters who are realists, who understand that the Good Friday Agreement is a historical compromise. While to various degrees they might remain suspicious of Sinn Féin, many of them know that republicans are genuinely trying to politically resolve the issues that fuelled the conflict. If this election proves them to be a minority within their own community then it represents a setback because the DUP and dissident unionists are politicians with unrealisable demands.

Yet, the history of modern unionism is a history of resisting the inevitable as long as possible. This week's election is no different. It used to be that the DUP was totally opposed to power sharing. Not anymore. It has re-hashed the phrase `voluntary coalition', to cover its climb down. However, the DUP and dissident Ulster Unionists define whom they are prepared to share power with and they include the SDLP but not Sinn Féin (who represent the majority of northern nationalists). In excluding Sinn Féin they wish to gerrymander the executive, wish to turn back the clock as far as they can. But Sinn Féin is now too large, too big a player on the stage and London and Dublin have been forced to take cognisance of its mandate.

John Joe Quinn's advice was never to take votes for granted. Despite the high price that has been paid for the right to vote people can become complacent, apathetic or lazy and don't appreciate its importance. To prevent demographic and constituency change, loyalist paramilitaries have killed Catholics, and continue to drive out Catholics even now, in many towns and quarters around the North.

The wily Tyrone man told me to canvass non-stop, from early morning to late at night. To go to the top of mountains to isolated farms which had never been canvassed before and ask people to come out and vote. To knock on every door in every hamlet and town. To encourage a mood, a bandwagon feeling, which would unite people and motivate people around the same proud project of choosing who should best represent them.

I took his advice and I was elected in Mid-Ulster as was Gerry Adams in West Belfast, Martin McGuinness in Derry, Owen Carron in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Jim McAllister in Armagh.

The lesson I learnt then and one that has been reinforced subsequently was that every vote counts. In the Westminster election two years ago Michelle Gildernew won by fifty-three votes. Fifty-three! In this week's election some of the last seats will be decided by a handful of votes.

But those seats will also be decided by a handful of nationalists, here and there, who with their backsides parked on the sofa will not bother to come out, who will by their inaction hand seats to anti-Agreement unionists and hand the rest of us a complication we could do without.

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© 2003 Irish Republican News