Posted By: April 13, 2015

Tom Kelly. Irish News ( Belfast). Monday, April 13, 2015


BY NOW you will have received your polling card and all the runners and riders have been declared in each constituency. If the thought of being harangued by an array of enthusiastic political junkies at your front door fills you with dread, you are probably not alone. At least this time some of the electoral entrants will make you smile, if nothing else. Amongst the no-hopers and hopeless are the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol party, the Workers Party (yes the comrades still exist) and the Conservative Party. The Green Party are clearly not expecting any great surge in Northern Ireland as they are only fielding five candidates. To their credit their strategy seems sensible, as they have limited resources – never mind candidates. The SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin are contesting all 18 constituencies, which is admirable but also extravagantly wasteful given that there’s more chance of Rocky Balboa making a comeback than Sinn Féin taking a seat in North Down, the Alliance Party in Newry & Armagh or the SDLP in East Belfast. Of course, the purists will say it’s not about winning it’s about putting your stall out, but in reality it’s mostly an exercise in electoral vanity. Worse still for some, it’s a case of jaw dropping naivety with candidates who barely scrapped into council seats in a proportional representation contest expecting to be taken seriously in a first-past-the-post election to Westminster. The decision by the Conservatives to contest 15 constituencies here but abstain from the two electoral tussles, North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone where the two unionist parties have made an electoral pact to defeat Sinn Féin, robs them of any pretence to being pluralist or non sectarian. Bizarrely, they also have taken a pop shot at the leadership of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness by portraying them as Laurel and Hardy on their election literature. Bizarre, because the Tory Party in government have been falling over themselves to woo the DUP at Westminster while at the same time giving Sinn Féin a range of political concessions. Centrally, the Conservative party must despair at the resources being wasted in Northern Ireland. Electorally speaking Northern Ireland makes Scotland look like the Garden of Eden to the Tories. Little wonder they have had to ship in candidates for 11 of the 15 seats they are contesting here, including a Punjabi-born Sikh businessman and a Westminster-based councillor. Over the next few weeks politicians will slug it out on our TV screens and their media performances may yet seal the fate for careers and political parties. It was Sir Cecil Wilson’s disastrous performance in a TV debate in 2001 that brought Nigel Dodd’s career to the fore. And yet still some have not learned that lesson. So far we have had two TV debates between the main parties, one concentrated on Fermanagh/South Tyrone and the other in the Unionist grudge match in East Belfast. Michelle Gildernew is one of Sinn Féin’s best media performers. Articulate, she comes across as humorous and caring. Like many watching The View, I felt for the youthful SDLP candidate as he came across as thoroughly decent but hopelessly out of his depth. He managed to make the wooden unionist standard bearer Tom Elliott seem like Tigger. The Fermanagh/South Tyrone battle is going to be a blood bath but barring some major upset should see Sinn Féin retain the seat. The second TV debate centred on East Belfast where the DUP is gambling all to unseat Naomi Long with the bookies favourite, former Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson. One suspects that despite the presence of another former Lord Mayor in the race, Niall Ó Donnaghaile, many Sinn Féin voters in the Short Strand will tactically vote for Long. Again though the SDLP contribution to the debate was lamentable. In both races, the SDLP will be like riderless horses in the Grand National but the party can ill afford any more poor performances on mainstream TV. With so few women candidates contesting winnable seats in the election Margaret Ritchie, Lady Sylvia Hermon, and Michelle Gildernew may be the only girls left from the Northern Ireland village post the election, which in some ways is a poor reflection on the selection processes of local parties. While there are stirrings of a possible upset in South Antrim by the gentleman politician Danny Kinahan, in reality all eyes will be on three out of the four Belfast seats where negative outcomes could end the careers of at least two party leaders.