The winds of change are blowing


By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

As John Finucane approached the podium at the launch of his election campaign he momentarily stalled, took a deep, deep breath and looked heavenwards.

It was a special moment in his and his family’s life; for Sinn Fein and the people of North Belfast - a community which had endured much, much hurt in the conflict.

Just like John’s family, whose father Pat was cruelly killed by loyalists, a few hundred yards away from where he spoke in the Lansdowne Court Hotel.

That awful day his and his family’s life changed forever.

His life was about to change again in a good, and yet, in unforeseen ways as a novice contender.

His mother Geraldine and his family looked on with pride at this new departure in their lives. On public occasions John was never too far away from his mother’s side as she campaigned tirelessly and with dignity for the truth about the killing of her husband and the father of her children. And now she stood with him.

John’s candidature was swift and unforeseen. But it carried with it so much significance. He is part of the new republican generation: profoundly hurt by the conflict but equally profoundly knows the benefits of peace.

A member of a party in transition and a struggle in transition trying to be elected for a constituency in transition.

He is a member of a party which values continuity not just of ideas but of people. Hence the experienced and valuable presence of Gerry Kelly and Caral Ni Chulin - the area’s formidable and long-standing duo.

It is one tough battle for Sinn Fein to take North Belfast. But the winds of change are swirling through the area.

A majority voted against the direction of its DUP MP, Nigel Dodd’s, twice in less than a year.

The people rejected his advice and a majority voted to remain in the EU. In the assembly election three nationalists to two unionists were elected resulting in the defeat of Nelson McCausland.

Nationalists have come to appreciate the power and value of their vote.

They joined unionists and others to produce a majority in the north in favour of remaining in the EU.

With others they also ended unionist majority rule in the assembly for the first time in almost one hundred years.

It is this momentum John Finucane is tapping into.

It is this momentum, especially the anti-Brexit mood that Naomi Long is also tapping into in East Belfast to try to win the seat from the pro-Brexit DUP.

The same momentum is in place in South Down which saw Sinn Fein lead the SDLP by 6,650 votes in the Assembly election and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone where Sinn Fein outpolled the SDLP by 16,874 and in Foyle - long the citadel of the SDLP, where Sinn Fein are ahead of the party by 2,162 votes.

The story in South Belfast is similar in terms of the growth of the Sinn Fein vote set against the declining SDLP vote.

But the contest there is much more difficult to predict. The seat is held by the SDLP and less than 1,400 votes separate all the contestants.

The big concern for nationalists is to ensure the ultra-Brexit DUP do not take the seat. It is a fascinating battle. Will nationalists act as a group to hold the seat for nationalists?

The judgement, and it is the finest to be made in all of the constituencies is, who is best placed to hold the seat: the SDLP or Sinn Fein?

The combined anti-Brexit vote is 31,000. The combined pro-Brexit vote is 10,000.

The anti-Brexiteers have a lot of soul-searching to do before June 8.

Soul-searching too south of the invisible border as the Fine Gael party also go to the polls to consider its replacement for Taoiseach Enda Kenny who resigned last week.

I thought it of singular interest that in all the media commentary about his achievements the north was not mentioned once.

He was 13 years as Taoiseach. It says a lot about the importance of the north for the Dublin establishment.

But the new Taoiseach will be from a new generation and just like the new generation of republicans, like John Finucane, he inherits a peaceful country.

And the north needs to be his number one priority.

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