Last Monday was the day 34 years ago when nominations closed for the historic Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election. Bobby Sands was at that point 30 days on hunger strike. He had been joined by Francie Hughes and Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O Hara. The by-election had been caused by the death of Independent MP Frank Maguire. Harry West was the single unionist candidate. Frank’s brother Noel submitted his nomination papers. The SDLP were internally divided over whether Austin Currie should run for them.
On that particular Monday myself and Jim Gibney, and Owen Carron, who was Bobby’s election agent, were sitting in a parked car in the convent grounds across from the electoral office at 40 Northland Row in Dungannon. We had decided that we wouldn’t split the nationalist vote but if Noel Maguire withdrew his nomination then we would withdraw Bobby’s. I was keeping in touch with Francie Molloy who was in contact with republicans in Lisnaskea. We knew Noel had left around 3 pm. At 3.55pm – five minutes before the deadline for withdrawing nomination papers - Noel Maguire arrived from Lisnaskea, entered the electoral office and withdrew his papers.
Speaking to journalists afterward Noel explained that he was withdrawing from the by-election and was throwing his endorsement behind Bobby Sands.
Bobby’s election victory and the subsequent electoral success of Ciaran Doherty in Cavan Monaghan and Kevin Agnew in Louth changed politics on the island of Ireland. The hunger strike elections accelerated the electoral strategy of Sinn Féin and in the south it sounded the death knell of single party governments. From that point on coalition government has been the order of the day.
Coincidently Monday was also the day when the British Prime Minister went off to Buckingham Palace to tell the British monarch that he was formally calling the British general election for May 7th.
Between now and May 7th the airwaves will be full of debate, speculation, political interviews, polemic, false promise, nonsense and party political broadcasts. Acres of newsprint will be devoted to what the political parties, and the scores of candidates in the north have to say on the constitutional issue, as well as on the bread and butter issues of the day.
An added sense of excitement – at least for the political anoraks – has been introduced with the opinion polls in Britain currently predicting a tight race between the Labour and Conservative parties. The role of the smaller parties has come in for scrutiny. Particularly the role of the Scottish National Party. They currently have six MPs but since the failed referendum for independence the SNP has gone from strength to strength. Party membership has rocketed and the pollsters are suggesting that its party strength at Westminster could jump by somewhere between 40 and 50 seats.
If they succeed in this they should reflect carefully on the experience of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 19th and early 20th centuries who propped up Westminster parties with nothing to show for it in the end on the key issue of independence and sovereignty.
Meanwhile the DUP has been expending a huge amount of energy seeking to convince the unionist electorate that they will be the kingmakers in the new Parliament. Their party election broadcast concentrated almost exclusively on that single theme.
The DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party have also entered into an electoral pact. North Belfast, which now has a nationalist majority, could be won by Gerry Kelly. East Belfast voted Alliance in the last election under embarrassing and difficult circumstances for Peter Robinson. The DUP want to reverse that. Newry and Armagh is a secure nationalist/republican seat but the UUP had to be given something in this largely one sided electoral pact. Perhaps their best chance is in Fermanagh South Tyrone which was held five years ago by Michelle Gildnernew with one vote. You can’t get much closer than that.
In this election the problem for working class unionists; for those who are unemployed or sick or disabled or elderly; and those on low and middle incomes; is that in policy and philosophy the DUP and Ulster Unionist Parties are even more conservative than the Tories. If given the opportunity both unionist parties will support a Tory government that is already committed to stripping £12 billion from the welfare system over the next five years and imposing more draconian austerity policies.
The impact on household income, on jobs, on public services will be disastrous. Their support for an EU referendum could see the British leave the European Union. Will the north be forced to leave also?
The situation is little better with a Labour government. It is committed to sticking with the Tory cuts agenda.
So any parties, which contemplate endorsing or supporting a cabinet of millionaires who are behind budget cuts, cuts to public services and cuts to social protections are ignoring the needs of the people in favour of narrow self interest. Claims that they can influence or moderate the economic policies of the next British government toward the north are empty rhetoric and PR spin.
Sinn Féin has signed a Peoples Pact. It is a solemn pledge to promote national reconciliation and equality; to stop the Tory cuts and defend the most vulnerable; and to encourage progressive politics.
Our commitment to the rights of citizens; our determination to stand up to sectarianism and racism and homophobia is the only alternative to the austerity politics of London and Dublin.
Sinn Féin has a credible track record on all of this. Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly over the last 20 years that in direct negotiations with the British we have secured more advances for citizens than any other party.
Sinn Féin is totally committed to defending core public services, including health, education and the welfare system. As an Irish republican party we will resolutely fight for policies that are based on equality, inclusion. We will work hard to protect and safeguard our children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities and the long term sick.
All of this presents a huge challenge. To succeed we need to secure the largest vote possible. In 35 days the people will have their say.