A glimpse back: this time 23 years ago.
11 April 1981
Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster By-Election:
Campaigning Against the Odds
Last Saturday, the SDLP central council met in Dungannon to discuss the May local government elections, but devoted a lot of the meeting to discussing the division created by the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. The outcome of Saturday's SDLP meeting was apparently a consensus supporting Currie's motion deploring the party's decision not to fight the election. There was also a declaration that in the future the party would fight all seats and will not seek "unity" candidates - a decision which will have important repercussions in West Belfast, Fitt's seat, wherethe nationalist vote will now be split.
The party also endorsed the suspension, pending a full investigation, of SDLP councilor Tommy Murray who signed Bobby Sands' nomination papers. Councilor Murray was just one of many Sands supporters, who included the Irish Independence Party, Noel Maguire, a number of independent councilors, Bernadette McAliskey, and many other leading members of the local community.
At the Enniskillen meeting on Monday night, attended and addressed by the Sands family, Fr. Joseph McVeigh, a native of Fermanagh home on leave from his parish in New York, said that the election was "a moral issue."
"I feel," he stated, "that on this occasion it would be immoral for people not to vote or for people to deliberately spoil their votes." He said that the election gave people "the opportunity to speak in a peaceful and non-violent way at the polls."
The harassment of Bobby Sands' election campaign got under way as soon as nominations closed that Monday week. Election workers on their way to a meeting in Carrickmore that night were stopped at a UDR checkpoint at Dan Donnelly's crossroads, held for an hours and thoroughly searched.
Jimmy McGivern, who was one of those stopped, said, "It was nothing but sheer harassment aimed at disrupting our work." Owen Carron, election agent for Bobby Sands; Francie Molloy, his campaign director; and Bernadette McAliskey, were among the many activists detained for unusually long periods by RUC and UDR patrols.
In Coalisland, one of Bobby Sands' elections workers, Patsy Grant, was arrested from his home by the RUC, last Monday morning, and held in Gough Barracks in Armagh - a move viewed locally as another cynical attempt to disrupt the Sands election campaign.
In another incident, the RUC escorted a pick up can with loyalists on board on the road at the edge of Ballygawley housing estate in Dungannon, where they systematically tore down Bobby Sands posters. Similarly, a Bobby Sands election car-cavaclade white spent all last Saturday erecting posters over a fifty mile stretch of constituency, were stopped at checkpoints and on the return journey discovered that the posters had been torn down. They had been shadowed along the road by the RUC and occasionally the UDR.
The fact that election candidate Bobby Sands was behind bars presented the media with a major problem of access. To facilitate two television documentaries on BBC and UTV the previous week, Bobby Sands signed a waiver nominating his election agent, Owen Carron, and four others to deputise for him. Owen Carron was allowed to liase with Bobby in Long Kesh prison hospital on several occasions. But, on Monday, after it was discovered that the other nominees were being refused access to Bobby to take directions from him, Bobby demanded that journalists be given the opportunity to interview him as they were free to do with Harry West.
It was pointed out that a precedent already existed form television crews to interview hunger-strikers. Last November, ITV's "World in Action" team were allowed to interview Raymond McCartney and Brendan Hughes, then into their eighteenth day on hungerstrike, and neither of them were up for a by-election. Owen Carron made the demand of the British administration, but, on Tuesday, direct-ruler Humphrey Atkins refused Bobby this right which BBC and UTV had both requested.
Legal advice was sought by the Sands campaigners and High Court action was being considered on Wednesday. But a solicitor advised that there was no legal remedy for neutralising the British administration's effective censoring of republican hungerstriker Bobby Sands as its contribution to the election campaign of unionist candidate Harry West.