A couple of things in today’s Fermanagh Herald …
I was shocked last night to read the news that, at its rerun selection convention, Sinn Fein had chosen the three male candidates on the slate and rejected both the women, sitting MLA Bronwyn McGahan and former minister Michelle Gildernew. Michelle was of course the MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone for many years, before being narrowly ousted by Tom Elliott under last year’s unionist pact. She is popular among the electorate, having topped the poll in the 2011 Assembly election, has always been friendly and courteous when we have met, and was even mentioned positively, as a young activist, in Tony Benn’s diaries. It is difficult to imagine that a male politician of her stature and experience would have been treated in this way.
It may be, of course, that this decision will be overturned by the higher echelons of the Sinn Fein hierarchy. But the damage will have been done. Whatever the party may say about building a society of equals, where the rights of women, LGBT people and minorities are cherished, attitudes at grassroots level seem to be somewhat different. Perhaps the Trojan Horse hasn’t quite been banished from the stables…
Well, the Big Move is over, we’re established in Enniskillen for good, and I’m ready to get back to this blog. I had no idea what my first post in the new series would be about, but when I read this story in the Impartial Reporter, I knew what it would have to be. I spent quite a bit of time with Michelle at the hustings for the Westminster elections, and she was unfailingly courteous and warm. Her speech at the count was dignified and gracious, and I have great respect for her. The burning of her effigy on a bonfire at Moygashel, with its accompanying chilling placard, shocked and appalled me. There is much in Sinn Fein’s organisation that I oppose, and many unanswered questions about past crimes carried out during the Troubles. But none of that makes this kind of behaviour acceptable. I was disappointed that Tom Elliott could not appreciate that this is not a time for the old ‘whataboutery’, but for simple decent human compassion. I would like to express my sympathy to Michelle and to her family, for whom this must be deeply painful, and hope that, working together, we can put this kind of vitriol, by any segment of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone community, firmly behind us.
I’ll be brief. I have had a couple of hours’ rest, but every time I closed my eyes, all I could see were serried ranks of politicians ….
We went up to Omagh Leisure Centre early, to catch the end of the West Tyrone count, which took place immediately before ours. Our Green Party candidate and friend Ciaran McClean (pictured with me above) did really well, against a very wide field.
As we were waiting for the official announcement of the result, the assembled photographers, in the absence of anyone properly famous, noticed that I was the only Fermanagh & South Tyrone candidate there, and there was a brief flurry of flashbulbs (or their contemporary equivalent) which was slightly bizarre for all of us. Janie slipped behind them for her own version.
Eventually our count began. I had thought that this would be a nerve-wracking experience, but there was so much to watch and talk about, that I didn’t have time to worry. The general consensus seemed to be that I would get around two hundred votes, so I was a little nervous about the prospect of not getting that far. As it turned out, though, by the time we took a look at my votes table (each of the candidates have one, at the top of the room) it was already healthily beyond that. Here is my final bundle.
Not that many people were interested in that, though, while Michelle and Tom’s votes were being stacked in their thousands.
Michelle had been expected to win, and for most of the time she seemed comfortably ahead, but a late surge in the unionist votes caught up and eventually ….
Cue enormous consternation from the assembled Sinn Fein notables (who later proved to include Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) and elation from the Ulster Unionists, whose leader, Mike Nesbitt, suddenly appeared before the announcement, as though in a chaotic episode of This Is Your Life.
Meanwhile I was delighted on my own account, at having exceeded both our and the general expectations, received so many votes despite the intense polarisation of the seat, and outpolled the established Alliance Party.
And there was more good news from the other GPNI candidates, with both Steven and Clare getting their deposits back and Ross continuing to do well in the difficult seat of East Belfast. Here are their results:
If only the news from across the water could have been so good.
Now back to Monday, and the LAMP Fermanagh fracking hustings. As usual, there were four of us there, and as usual, John Coyle and I arrived first. For some reason (upon which you can speculate for yourselves) both Michelle Gildernew and Tom Elliott preferred to sit by John rather than by me. Michelle got there first and bagged it with her coat, which Tom didn’t notice and sat down there anyway, leading to a certain amount of banter about his attempts to take her seat and her getting it back again.
Anyway, videos of the full proceedings are available on the LAMP YouTube page, and will, if I get the time, be embedded and discussed on this site. Meanwhile there are just a couple of things I’d like to mention. The first is the one that has received the bulk of the media coverage, the Pledge. Here is the video clip of what happened:
As you’ll see, I was the first candidate to agree to sign this immediately, though John Coyle actually changed his mind and did so, albeit in pencil, during the course of the discussions. I was able to commit myself because this is an issue that I have been working on for so long and in such depth, and I had time, while Michelle and John were speaking, to consider it and see that it had no negative implications. It didn’t require me, as I made clear, to be bound by the view of the Chief Medical Officer and so didn’t affect in any way my commitment to a total ban on fracking. I would, of course, have been happy to sign a pledge that went much further. I don’t think, though, that too much should be made of the issue, or of the fact that Michelle wanted to discuss the pledge with her party colleagues before deciding whether to sign it. Although Sinn Fein has had an official policy of opposing fracking, they haven’t done as much on the ground as we have, so it’s natural that she would need to consult more widely.
A more important point was raised later in the evening, when the discussion was opened to questions from the floor. Here is the beginning of that session.
The question is being asked by Donal O’Cofaigh who stood (against a Green candidate, so he has no reason to flatter us) as an anti-fracking candidate in the local elections last year. At around four minutes into the video he is talking about the petition initiated by Steven Agnew in the Assembly last April. This action (we all incorrectly refer to it as a ‘petition of concern’ which is not its technical title, as Phil Flanagan later pointed out, but nothing turns on that) would, if it had gained the support of thirty MLAs, have referred DETI’s decision to extend Tamboran’s licence to the Executive. As Donal points out, only two non-Green Party MLAs signed it, neither of whom represented Fermanagh.
At about 5mins 50 secs, Tom Elliott is talking about why he didn’t sign it. He says (inter alia)
“I actually wasn’t notified about that …. as soon as I did I went to sign up but the time had ran out [sic] …. I would have signed that.”
You may notice me shaking my head in mystification during this explanation. The reason I was surprised was that the campaign to support Steven’s petition was one of the biggest ever in Northern Ireland, with MLAs receiving hundreds of emails, tweets and calls asking them to sign it. The volume was so great that on 12th April the Belfast Telegraph carried a story specifically about it.
One of those hundreds of emails was sent to Tom Elliott on 11th April by a frack-free campaigner. It was a very short message, simply asking him to sign the petition and making it clear who had launched it. He replied within half an hour, expressing his concern about the licence extension but not saying whether or not he would sign. The petition remained open for signatures well into May.
You’ll understand why I look perplexed.
As so many people read my blog from all across the world, it’s probably about time that I explained a bit about the constituency for which I am standing.
I think it’s fair to describe Fermanagh and South Tyrone as one of the most interesting in the UK. On bad days that’s ‘interesting’ as in the apocryphal curse, ‘may you live in interesting times.’ On good days it’s genuinely intriguing.
Firstly, it’s currently the most marginal seat in the UK. Michelle Gildernew, the Sinn Fein candidate (who, like other Sinn Fein MPs does not actually take her seat at Westminster) won the 2010 election with four votes, after three recounts. The runner-up, Unionist ‘unity’ candidate Rodney Connor who at the time was a neighbour of ours (geographically, not politically) lodged an election petition with the courts challenging the verdict. The court found, after considering many issues, that three ballot boxes each contained one more vote that they should have done, but that it couldn’t identify the three. Even if they had all been for Michelle Gildernew, and all been invalid, this wouldn’t have affected the result, which would then have been a single vote Sinn Fein majority.
Secondly, it regularly records an extremely high turnout. In the 1951 election, it was 93.4%, the highest in any general election since 1918.
Thirdly, it’s the most westerly constituency in the UK.
The first two of these are a result of (and the third to a large extent the cause of) the fact that the population of Fermanagh and South Tyrone is finely balanced between nationalists (overwhelmingly Catholic) and unionists (ditto Protestant). It has therefore swung between these two groupings, with very little by way of votes for any differently defined candidates. Before 1950, the old constituency covered the whole of counties Fermanagh and Tyrone, and was the only one regularly to elect nationalist MPs. However, the northern part of Tyrone (Omagh etc.) was then added to Mid Ulster, leaving Fermanagh and South Tyrone as a desperately close contest.
Rodney Connor’s was far from the first election petition here, with Philip Clarke of Sinn Fein being unseated in 1955 on the grounds that his criminal conviction for IRA activity made him ineligible. But this was a minor flurry in comparison to the 1981 by-election, caused by the death of nationalist Frank Maguire.
In 1976 the British government had withdrawn special category status (making them de facto prisoners of war) from Irish republican prisoners. This had led to the ‘blanket’ and ‘dirty’ protests by the prisoners, and in 1980, by which time the intransigent Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, to the first hunger strike. The second hunger strike took place in 1981, and one of the participants, 26-year old Bobby Sands, stood in the by-election under the label “Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner”. He won by around 1400 votes, but died within a month.
It was this event which led directly to the success of Sinn Fein as a political party, and as a result the seat is of enormous symbolic and emotional importance to its members and supporters. Only last week, over thirty years after the death of Sands, Michelle Gildernew launched her campaign with the rallying cry:
“This seat belongs to Bobby Sands, this seat belongs to Sinn Fein, this seat belongs to you.”
It is therefore also of immense significance to the unionists, who speak constantly of the importance of ‘winning it back’. The fact that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is governed by the Good Friday Agreement, and not decided by Westminster MPs, makes little or no difference to either side. ‘Fermanagh-South-Tyrone’ as it’s invariably pronounced, is a matter of pride, not of policy.
And it’s that pride that explains the perpetual bickering about electoral pacts. Generally, throughout the constituency’s history, one side has won, not by positive campaigning but because the other’s vote has been split by rival candidates. Hence Rodney Connor’s candidacy in 2010, and Tom Elliott’s this year, under a rather fragile-looking DUP/UUP agreement. Hence also Sinn Fein’s irritation with the SDLP for the latter’s temerity in insisting in running a candidate of its own.
So here I am, in the midst of all this history and legend and deal-making and emotion, trying to suggest that maybe people might like to vote according to their own best interests, or at least that of their children. Good luck with that one, as they say.
Well, that went all right. It turned out that they didn’t want the statements that they’d asked us for, we just dived straight into questions, but I think I generally acquitted myself all right. It was all very well-behaved and civilised, with no mention of anything controversial – you wouldn’t know that sectarianism even existed until I mentioned it at the end.
Here I am explaining quantitative easing, with Michelle Gildernew looking on. You can watch the whole thing on the Wimps TV site (see below) – the actual event begins about twelve minutes in.
Time for dinner!
p.s. The Wimps TV link doesn’t currently work – it’s come off the live site and isn’t on the edited videos yet, but I’ll add the new link when it’s available.
p.p.s. Now here!
Aidan and I spent three hours watching television today. If you know me, you’ll be surprised at that and if you know Aidan, you’ll be absolutely amazed. But then it was BBC Parliament, and we were watching the end of today’s debate on the motion not to renew the Trident nuclear weapon system. I was proud to be a member of CND, listening to the speeches in favour of the motion by our one (so far) Green MP, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, a few brave Labour rebels including Jeremy Corbyn, and one or two ex-army Tories who know that, even from a military standpoint, an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ makes no sense. I was even more proud to be a member of the Green Party, watching Caroline Lucas’s clear and professional argument. The debate did two further things: removed any lingering doubts about the Labour Party – apart from noble mavericks like Jeremy Corbyn they really are just another shade of grey – and confirmed what I said in October in response to Michelle Gildernew’s claim that Westminster is ‘irrelevant’. There is little that can be more important to our children’s future than the squandering of over £100 billion of their money on lethal and unnecessary weapons of mass destruction. It is very sad that we did not have an MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone in the chamber this afternoon.
Home again, to five days’ worth of things to catch up on, and some press releases to send out. Email makes that a little easier than back in the eighties, when I worked in charity PR, but it still takes longer than I expect. Then the Fermanagh Herald asks me to call in for a photograph, so an emergency hairwash gets added in. (Ah, the vanity.) The Impartial Reporter already has a picture of me, taken at Tamboran’s proposed drill site near Belcoo, on the evening of the shared prayer service, when we’d just heard the news of Mark Durkan’s decision not to grant them permitted development rights. (See my decombustion blog for more details.) That was a joyful evening, and definitely no time for hair-washing. Sure enough, they’ve used the picture in their story in today’s online edition. By the way, the dog whose lead I am holding isn’t our Robbie, but my friend Lynn’s Dobby. Lynn took the picture I was actually posing for, the one on the Fermanagh & South Tyrone Greens site.
p.s. (10pm) Sinn Fein have just announced that Michelle Gildernew, the sitting (well, not quite sitting, more staying away – Sinn Fein don’t believe in the House of Commons) MP will stand for them again. No great surprise there; it will be her fourth time and she’s been the MP since 2001. Maybe time for a change now, though.