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.Confident
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.Amazing
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.
Perhaps the most despicable intervention came from the British Labour opposition spokesperson on the North, Don Concannon
. Speaking from the sanctuary of the British parliament on polling day, he declared that the electorate had a “unique opportunity to denounce the men of violence” and said that a vote for Bobby Sands was a vote of approval for the IRA operations such as the Narrow Water ambush (when 18 British soldiers were killed).
Had a by-election been taking place in Britain, propriety would dictate that on polling day such an electioneering outburst would not be made, let alone be reported by the live media, which is legally obligated to give fair and equal coverage to contestants. (The reporting of such statements places the particular contestant with an immediate advantage over others, who have only a limited time in which to re-influence the voters before the polling booth close.)
Concannon’s stupid outburst, unlike the statement from Fianna Fail Euro-MP Sile de Valera, who on the eve of polling day called for support for Bobby Sands
, was given extensive coverage in the North. Concannon had worked at Stormont as a direct-rule minister from 1976 until May 1979, and during that time was responsible for the administration of the H-Blocks and knew of the brutal beatings taking place. However, he seems to have learnt nothing from his time in Ireland.
One of his last acts in the North was to go to Lisnaskea and visit the late Frank Maguire (whom Bobby Sands succeeded as MP) on the eve on a crucial vote of confidence in the Labour government in April 1979. He pleaded with Maguire to make a rare visit to Westminster and support the crumbling Labour government, Frank Maguire’s price (and the sentiment of Fermanagh South Tyrone) was political status for the men in H-Block and the women in Armagh. But the Labour government would not concede, and so without Maguire’s support it fell and the Tories subsequently came to office.
Concannon’s bungling intervention this time almost certainly confirmed native instincts that their choice of Sands was the correct one.Abusive
British press reactive to the election victory was hysterical and as abusive as that which followed the IRA execution of Lord Mountbatten
and the killing of 18 British soldiers
in August 1979. An editorial in the “Sunday Express” said of the electorate “May God forgive their hypocrisy” and concluded: “Their attendance at Mass this morning is as corrupt as the kiss of Judas.”
The “Sunday Times” was less insulting, and saw the result as a watershed: “the election result finally and publicly puts paid to the notion – wishfully fostered by Protestants in the province and by government spokesmen abroad – that the Provisional IRA enjoys no popular support.”
However to the IRA, the validity of its mandate, which has undoubtedly been enhanced by the election of an IRA Volunteer, rests after the election, as before the election, upon the illegitimacy of partition and the British presence. Undoubtedly, however, internationally the result will be interpreted as a popular mandate for the armed struggle for national liberation.
Following the election victory, Sinn Fein president Ruairi O’Bradaigh pointed out that the people had spoken: “The message from Fermanagh and South Tyrone to all the world is clear: political status for the political prisoners now, before Bobby Sands
and his comrades die.” He slammed the ‘begrudgers’ of the victory, especially Gerry Fitt, who he called upon to resign his Westminster seat.
The political repercussions of the outcome of the election dominated the news media for a full week. SDLP leaders, who 48 hours earlier had warned that a vote for Sands was “a vote for violence”, soon abandoned that tune after 30,492 voters made an IRA Volunteer an MP. It was not, after all, said Austin Currie
‘a vote for violence’!
West, by using quotes from the Pope had waged a “very stupid campaign”, whereas Bobby Sands
’ camp had waged a “very shrewd and unprincipled election campaign”, said the former Stormont MP who once called for a civil disobedience campaign and then, as a cabinet minister in the power-sharing assembly, seized the cattle of poor people in lieu of payment of rent and rates which they had withheld as a part of that disobedience campaign.SDLP
Last Tuesday, SDLP leader John Hume
, still carefully avoiding the SDLP taking up a clear position on the H-Block crisis, urged Bobby Sands to demand facilities of the British administration so that he could take them to the European Commission on Human Rights
for a ruling on the commission’s H-Block report.
Attacking Hume’s smokescreen substitute for hard anti-British criticism, a Sinn Fein spokesperson pointed out: “Last week, Mr. Hume did not run to Europe for a ruling when he advised the electorate to vote against Bobby Sands
. What the people would be really interested to hear is not John Hume’s advice but his attitude towards the British government and its brutal treatment of the political prisoners.”
Discredited West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt
– who had, even before the killing by an unknown gunman of a census collector in Derry two days before polling day, unashamedly attempted to sway the nationalist electorate in favour of Harry West – declared the Sands victory “a mandate for the Provisional IRA”. The Alliance Party said that the Fermanagh and South Tyrone electorate “are to be condemned” and Official Unionist leader, James Molyneaux
, said that the result would be read as “support by the Catholic community for the Provisional IRA.”Loyalist
The Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association said that the vote was a “vote for the IRA”. Attempting to prove this point the terror gang’s leader, Andy Tyrie, said: “If a UDA man had stood in the same election he would have been lucky to get five thousands votes. This IRA man got thirty thousands votes.” The UDA, who for a number of years have been advocating, without success, six-county “independence” (thru a front organization, the New Ulster Political Research Group), while carrying out a sectarian assassination campaign, made the excuse that the election result would drive them away from “politics” and back to paramilitarism, which they have never abandoned anyway. A crisis meeting of UDA commanders was held in Belfast on Tuesday evening to discuss the future of their “independence” front group, though no immediate statement was made.
Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party were undoubtedly pleased at the result, since it allowed them, in the run-up to the local government elections in May, to blame the Official Unionists for not accepting an “agreed” candidate, and at the same time gave them the opportunity to launch the sectarian broadsides at the Catholic people. “Now we know,” said Paisley, addressing a loyalist rally in Glasgow last Saturday, “where the Roman Catholics in Ulster and the so-called moderates stand. More than thirty thousand of them have voted for the IRA commandant in the Maze prison.” (Nevermind that one hundred and eighty thousands unionists in the 1979 European elections voted for a raving bigot with a history of over twenty-five years of anti-Catholic sectarianism behind him!)Crisis
Apart from Sile de Valera’s welcome for the result, there was very little reaction from Free State politicians. Similarly, British politicians were reticent to speak about the repercussions for the continuation of the policy of criminalization. British premier Margaret Thatcher, where interviewed exclusively on ITN “News at Ten” last Monday evening, was extremely evasive even when being questioned by a sympathetic interviewer. She reiterated that there is to be no change in British government policy towards the North despite the election result.
On Tuesday the British cabinet met, and reports after the grisly discussion indicated that ministers were told to prepare for the inevitable prospect of Bobby Sands’ death. The British government again reaffirmed that it had no intention of giving the prisoners their five demands, and afterwards Thatcher conveniently took herself off to India and the Gulf States for an eleven-day tour as the crisis point in Bobby Sands’ life rapidly approached.