A glimpse back: this time 23 years ago.
11 April 1981
Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster By-Election:
Campaigning Against the Odds
Despite the overall advantage on paper of a constituency with a nationalist majority, the election campaigners for republican hungerstriker Bobby Sands faced considerable odds at all corners during the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.
Attempts were made by the outset by die-hard SDLP members to mount a semi-official boycott or spoiled vote campaign which, if effectively supported by only a few thousand voters, place Official Unionists Harry West in an advantageous position.
The British army, RUC and UDR carried out a consistent campaign of harassment of election workers, stopping and delaying them at checkpoints, and tore down thousands of Bobby Sands posters within minutes of them being put up. The British administration at Stormont Castle issued a statement from direct-rulers Humphrey Atkins on Tuesday confirming that they would not be allowing press, radio, or television journalists access to Bobby Sands. They thus handicapped the media from carrying out its duties under the Representation of the People Act to ensure fair and equal coverage to election contestants.
And, finally, the fatal shooting by an unidentified gunman of the young women collecting census forms in Derry's Waterside on Tuesday night was bound to hurt support in some way. Of course, Harry West also had his problems. Hardly the most inspiring of leaders, and brought out of a comfortable retirement, Harry West never once appeared to exude confidence. Although loyalist leader Ian Paisley failed to force him to withdraw from the contest in favour of UDR soldier Roy Kellis, paisley is reported to have mounted a silent boycott. Paisley's intention was to ensure West's defeat so that at the second by-election in two or three months' time, should Bobby Sands be elected and then resign, his Democratic Unionist Party would have another opportunity to undermine the Official Unionists.
Last Tuesday, Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson, called upon West to support Paisley's campaign against last Decemeber's Dublin summit, in return for DUP support at Thursday's election. West skirted the proposition and although a DUP boycott may be detectable from an examination of the election result, the Paisleyites would not have been strong of influential enough to cancel out the damage done to Bobby Sands' chances by determined SDLP boycotters.
The determination of SDLP boycotters seems unquestionable following the vitriolic statement from executive party members last week. The sudden withdrawal from the election of Noel Maguire on Monday, March 30th, at the last minute, left the SDLP dumbfounded. So convinced were they that he and Bobby Sands would between them split the nationalist vote, leaving the SDLP aloof from criticism, that the executive that Sunday had withdrawn Austin Currie's nomination - which had only narrowly been approved, anyway, by a divided constituency selection committee. Currie was bitterly disappointed, but exploded when Noel Maguire's withdrawal was announced, leaving Bobby Sands with a clear field against Harry West.
The recriminations split over into public attacks from former prominent members and executive members, who held other executive members responsible for the debacle. Former SDLP men Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin described the decision to withdraw as "sectarian" and "a shame and an outrage".
Deputy leader Seamus Mallon rebuffed these attacks, and also lumped in an attack by Ivan Cooper (one of the party's founders), saying that the criticism of party leader John Hume, who was being held primarily responsible for the decision, was motivated by person antagonism and petty jealousy. "those three people are behaving like political poodles snapping at the heels of the master," said Mallon, pointing out that Cooper had not even bothered to attend the meeting which made the decision to withdraw.
But Cooper fought back, describing the decision as "unjustifiable" and he joined with Austin Currie and Paddy O'Hanlon in calling upon the electorate to spoil their vote, whilst John Hume and party chairman Sean Farren called on voters to ignore the election.
**Part two tomorrow.