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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

In a two-horse race, can Paisley Jr pull ahead?

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

In North Antrim it’s a straight contest between two rivals but a famous name divides voters down the middle.

Chris, a former soldier, is handed a Vote Paisley leaflet in Ballymena's mainly loyalist Ballykeel estate. "Giving these leaflets to people is the same as if you were putting a gospel tract in their hands" he says reverently. "They will take it and act in the right way at the right time. I will do that."

In areas such as this, the Paisley name holds an almost religious significance, particularly amongst older voters. This time Ian Paisley Senior, who held the North Antrim seat for 40 years, is being replaced by his son and namesake. Paisley fils has a different style than his clergyman father. He stops to kick a football with youngsters and has a blokeish charm on the doorsteps where his father was hearty and intimidating by turn.

It's the first time since 1970 that local people have not been asked to vote for the big man as MP for North Antrim. Instead, this election resembles a referendum On the ground within the unionist community on the Paisley legacy and the record of the Democratic Unionist Party, which he founded.

It is a factor played up by Paisley Jr's principle opponent, Jim Allister, a former DUP MEP who left the party to form the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) which opposed power sharing with Sinn Féin. Faced with a floating voter in Glarryford, a huddle of houses near Ballymena, he says "It is a two horse race this. You have a choice between continuing the overbearing Paisley dynasty into the second generation or voting for somebody who can make a change."

The voter is, by inclination, a supporter of the middle of the road Alliance Party. He would like to have a more left wing alternative than is on offer, but is swayed for a moment by Allister's "anyone but Paisley" pitch.

The Paisley name is as polarising as that, but it still has considerable pulling power. "My competitors' tactics are all about slinging mud at me" Paisley Junior says. "People are basing their campaign on hatred of me, hatred of my father, but I don't believe it has gone down well in the local area."

In Ballykeel, a working class estate, the DUP has been weakened by the defection of Davy Tweed, one of its councillors to a rival hard-line grouping. It doesn't seem to have made a huge impact, though, and even those who distrust Paisley seem inclined to vote for him anyway. One young housewife took his leaflet with a smile and a cheery "no problem" but expressed misgivings as soon as he had moved on.

"I hope he is not like his father and sells us out" she says. "I am not happy with Sinn Féin in government and it isn't stopping the bombs with these dissidents. I think we are going to go back to the troubles either way."

Some of Paisley's workers share her pessimism. Ian Thompson, who runs the local youth football team in Ballykeel, is worried that the current period of peace may prove to be "the lull before the storm." He talks of sectarian clashes between young people who don't remember the troubles and may be ready to support violence again in a few years. "The old timers realise it is the lesser of two evils to sit down with Sinn Féin but the younger people are harder in their views" he says. They think it is still them and us" he says.

Darren, an unemployed 19- year- old, is typical of the disenchanted youth of the area. "I left school at sixteen and I lost my job because of all the foreign people. I was there about three months, that is all the time I worked in three years. There were only three British people and the rest were foreign. They were Polish or Russian or something; I don't like them coming here." As for Catholics, he says bluntly "I hate them."

Darren knows is not aware of the party's drive to bring jobs into the area, but he will vote Paisley anyway, and thinks that Sinn Féin in government is not a big issue any more.

Through North Antrim there is a sense that the once-hot issues, like devolution of policing and justice and power sharing, have faded from people's minds. Helen, a retired care assistant, and TUV voter in Glarryford, backs Allister because of his strong record of support for farmers in Europe."I think he is the only straight one of the lot of them. He is a great guy" she enthuses.

It is partly an anti-Paisley vote, but, she adds, "Sinn Féin in government doesn't really bother me. I am more worried that nothing seems to be working and they are all fighting each other up in Stormont."

Allister surprised the pundits by gaining around 66,000 votes in last year's European election. It was three times what the DUP had bargained for and it pushed them into third place, but few believe that he will take the seat off Paisley this time.

Irwin Armstrong, a local businessman who is standing for UCUNF and has so far only canvassed middle class areas, says "I haven't actually met anybody who said they were voting for Allister yet, but I meet plenty who are not voting DUP. The big issue on the doorstep is politicians' expenses. People say we are a lot of crooks."

Still, Armstrong is disappointed – his best hope is if Allister leaches enough votes off Paisley to let him slip through the middle.

Realistically, Daithai McKay of Sinn Féin and Declan O'Loan of the SDLP don't stand a chance in a Westminster constituency which is 68% Protestant and dominated by the Paisley question. The two nationalist MLAs are hoping to build support to defend their seats in next year's assembly elections but, even then, boundary changes raise the possibility that one of them may lose out.

Jayne Dunlop, of Alliance, and Lyle Cubitt, an anti power sharing independent, are also likely to be squeezed this time around.

Whoever wins, the Paisley/Allister grudge match isn't over. Allister, a senior barrister, has served a libel writ on Paisley's solicitors over remarks the DUP made about his earnings in a campaign leaflet. You sense that this election is just their first contest of many.

April 26, 2010
________________

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on April 25, 2010.

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