Watching Paint Dry, Or ...
Watching Paint Dry, Or ...

by Danny Morrison

A few weeks ago, just on the eve of the European election campaign, but not, as far as known, in competition with it, satellite channel UKTV announced that it was to stream a new reality show called ‘Watching Paint Dry’ on the internet. Viewers can watch a different kind of paint dry on an empty wall each day and will be able to vote for their favourite paint.

Okay, European elections can be dull but at least in this country there is always a bit of a scrap which adds some piquancy to the campaigns and the outcome. In North West constituency, which takes in Donegal, there is a right row going on between two Fianna Fáil candidates over the carve-up of the territory, with each encroaching on the others with posters and canvassing. One candidate even sent a letter to his rival asking for his No 1 vote!

In the election in the six counties Jim Allister can rely on some of the usual DUP fervour to ensure his election though clearly he is worried about his low profile. He left the DUP after a row in 1987 and went back to his law practice. He didn’t stand in last November’s Assembly elections which saw Paisley’s party overtake the Ulster Unionists but has been lured back with the promise of a seat.

The DUP aims to motivate its supporters in the absence of Paisley, and win Ulster Unionist voters, by playing on the possibility that without a high loyalist turn-out Sinn Féin’s Bairbre de Brun could top the poll on June 10th. In last November’s election only two points separated Sinn Féin (24%) from the DUP (26%).

The DUP is hoping that it will have eaten further into the Ulster Unionist vote since November. It has spent as much time attacking the lacklustre UUP candidate Jim Nicholson as it has Sinn Féin and has reminded unionists that the UUP shared power with ‘Sinn Féin/IRA’. The danger with the DUP’s scare campaign is twofold. Firstly, a decisive number of SDLP supporters could decide to tactically switch to Sinn Féin for a historic nationalist victory in the North (they did it before to get rid of the DUP’s Willie McCrea); and, secondly, some Nicholson voters, demoralised by the DUP’s campaign, might simply stay at home.

Sinn Féin’s objective is to get its first Euro MP in the North with the election of Bairbre de Brun and believes that its substantial Assembly lead of 7 points over the SDLP will ensure just that. Bairbre de Brun, is the former Minister of Health, has a high profile, is multilingual and is an articulate, polished media performer. In contrast, the SDLP candidate, Martin Morgan, has Fáiled until lately to take on a recognisable leadership role within the SDLP, despite being in the party for nineteen years. According to one newspaper a unionist in Belfast City Centre promised Morgan his support because he thought he was a DUP canvasser! That hardly bodes well when you consider that Morgan has been a Belfast city councillor for eleven years, was until last week Belfast’s Lord Mayor and that he was flanked in the city centre by SDLP leader Mark Durkan.

The Alliance Party and the Workers Party are backing the independent candidate and President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, John Gilliland. They have organised an effective poster campaign and appear well resourced. Gilliland has the potential for taking some first preference votes away from Nicholson. This has led to speculation that if there is a low Ulster Unionist turn-out there is a possibility that the SDLP could slip through and take the last seat. But I doubt that.

Eamon McCann is running for the Socialist Environmental Alliance and is attempting to keep working class issues to the fore. It will be interesting to see how many votes he garners and whether their redistribution makes any kind of impact on deciding the three seats.

In the Twenty-Six Counties interest lies in whether Sinn Féin can make a breakthrough into Europe. It is certainly going to multiply its representation in local government, elections to which are being held the same day, June 11. Sinn Féin is also part of a broad alliance arguing for a ‘No’ vote in the citizenship referendum. If passed, this amendment to the Irish Constitution, unilaterally changes the citizenship clauses of the Belfast Agreement, undermines its integrity and strengthens the DUP case that the Agreement can be renegotiated. But these concerns have been largely lost in the welter of other arguments being waged in the election battles.

Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice, sprung this referendum without any consultation process despite its potential repercussions. Not unlike the DUP when it comes to scaremongering, he alleged that Irish maternity hospitals were being clogged up by foreigners who were travelling to Ireland in the late stages of pregnancy and giving birth in Ireland in order to claim Irish citizenship and citizenship of the European Union.

McDowell, whose party, the Progressive Democrats, is not standing in the European elections, has carried out a vociferous campaign against Sinn Féin, aimed at undermining the party’s attraction to new voters.

The renewed controversy over the possible release of the republican prisoners convicted of the manslaughter of Garda Jerry McCabe in 1996 (who qualified for early release under the 1998 Belfast Agreement but who remain in jail) was, again, aimed at stirring up public emotion in a partisan way, and placing Sinn Féin on the defensive in relation to the IRA and the legacy of the conflict.

Republican opponents have gleefully claimed that this campaign has met with great success, and has stopped Sinn Féin’s hopeful in Dublin, Mary Lou McDonald. But as she pointed out on RTE, polls tend to underestimate the support for Sinn Féin. Two years ago they stated that Martin Ferris was in fourth position in North Kerry but he went on to top the poll and take a seat. The same opponents using the same poll couldn’t explain, if McDowell’s anti-republican campaign was so successful, the extraordinary showing of Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty at 15% in the North-West constituency.

The latest opinion poll, published in Saturday’s Irish Times, showed that the final outcomes were impossible to predict and it is that that makes voting so worthwhile and the outcome so interesting. Unless, of course, you would prefer to watch paint dry.

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