By Peter Arnlis
An Phoblacht/Republican News
18 April 1981
To election workers for H-Block hungerstriker Bobby Sands, the high poll of 86.8%, recorded on polling day Thursday 9th April in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster by-election, was the first favourable sign indicating at least that the boycott advocated by some executive members of the SDLP had been ignored by the nationalist people.
The next encouraging sign came during the count in Enniskillen on Friday when it could be seen that SDLP strongholds such as Irvinestown in County Fermanagh and Donaghmore in County Tyrone were returning a very low percentage of spoiled votes, again ignoring the advice of the SDLP leadership who just as much as UDR and RUC checkpoints had attempted to sabotage an election victory for Bobby Sands.
Bobby, always a few hundred votes ahead during the count, looked as if he had made it.
From lunchtime onwards, republicans were quietly confident that their interpretation of the count was correct, though many journalists were skeptical (because of republicans inexperience at this game, they said!) and were influenced enough by briefings from born optimist James Cooper, Harry West’s election agent, to report the candidates as neck and neck.
This had the effect of attracting cocky loyalists to Enniskillen Technical College, the venue for the count. However, by about three o’clock they discreetly dispersed and were replaced by a growing crowd of proud nationalists who could taste victory.
An “Enniskillen Youth Against H-Block” banner appeared and the chanting built up to a crescendo until the announcement was made by the returning officer, Alistair Patterson, at 4:25pm. “The result was 30492 votes for Bobby Sands (Anti-H-Block/Armagh political prisoner), 29046 for Harry West (Official Unionist) and 3280 unmarked or spoiled votes.”
The loyalists were totally demoralized, the RUC guards visibly shaken, the media, who almost unanimously predicted the opposite outcome were humbled and the jubilance of the republicans for turning the various establishments on their heads was expressed by veteran republican Kevin Agnew’s opening invective from the steps of the college. “Fellow terrorists”, he triumphantly addressed the crowd, to uproarious applause, each supporter ramming the word terrorist down all the various onlookers’ throats.
The result was amazing given the many factors against a victory. The high poll and low number of spoiled votes (over half of which were visibly Paisley-inspired anti-West ballot papers) were a clear rejection by the nationalist people of the advice given by the treacherous leadership of the SDLP.
Though Bobby Sands’ campaign was run by a broad based committee, though he ran on an anti H-Block/Armagh political prisoner ticket, the SDLP leadership, sections of the Catholic church, and Official Unionist Party and British parliament, declared that to vote for Bobby Sands was to vote for the IRA. They blackmailed and intimidated the nationalist electorate who nevertheless braved all arguments and threats and made republican hungerstriker Bobby Sands a Westminster MP.