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

The Shinners, Sharon and the unrepentant republican

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

She's the SDLP's answer to Mary Lou. Young, smart and good-looking, Sharon Haughey is on the election trail in Newry and Armagh. Not that she takes kindly to the comparison with the Sinn Féin woman: "I won't be jumping from one party to another. I'm SDLP through and through. I believe in consistency in politics."

Haughey, (25), the youngest local candidate in the election, isn't short on confidence. With glossy long black hair, turquoise glass ear-rings, and a well-cut coat, she's a glamorous figure in Main Street, Keady, on a biting cold day. She's a hard constituency worker too. She hails from Tassagh, two miles down the road. Her three cousins, the Reavey brothers, were murdered by loyalists at Whitecross.

After graduation, she worked in Hillary Clinton's Washington office but wasn't tempted to stay: "I love Armagh too much." Colleagues tease her about "her determination to hook an Armagh GAA player as a husband".

At 14, she wrote to Bill Clinton, outlining her vision for the North. "I was watching his first visit here on TV and B was stunned when he started reading out my letter," she says. She met the Clintons on their second visit, and "that encouraged me into politics".

Once, Newry and Armagh was sacred SDLP territory. Seamus Mallon was the MP. Post-peace process, the party's support dipped and Sinn Féin now has three Assembly members to the SDLP's one. Haughey is hoping to win one back and join sitting Assembly member, Dominic Bradley, at Stormont.

It's a tough task. The Sinn Féin team is led by the high-profile able MP, Conor Murphy. Its election machine is unrivalled but, overall, the constituency is too close to call. Haughey, already a councillor, is joined on the canvass by Tom O'Hanlon, 25, the SDLP's deputy Armagh mayor. "Young people automatically voted Sinn Féin but we're changing that," she says.

"We have four constituency offices, Sinn Féin have three. I'm also very proud that in the North, 40% of our candidates are female – the best of all the parties. One man on the doorstep even joked: 'What's wrong with the SDLP, can't you find any men?' I assured him there still are men in the SDLP!"

Independent republican and sitting Assembly member, Davy Hyland, could well be battling it out with the SDLP and Sinn Féin for the last nationalist seat. A former Newry mayor, he resigned from Sinn Féin after being deselected, citing his refusal to endorse the police. Compared to his nationalist rivals, his is a shoe-string budget. "Funds are low but spirits are high," he says.

He still has the Sinn Féin text message on his mobile phone, informing him of his deselection. His replacement was Micky Brady, an ex-Workers' Party member whom Hyland says was a new convert to Sinn Féin. "'They fairly shit on you,' a local priest said to me the other day. I gave 25 years commitment to republicanism, 15 as a local representative. The party didn't treat me with much respect.

"My mayoral picture hung in a local pub. But it was taken down when I resigned. I still go in for pint though. I have remained true to my republican principles. I can hold my head high."

In a sweater, trainers, and well-worn jeans, Hyland resembles a pre-1994 Sinn Féin representative. "I cycled about Newry doing my constituency work. The chief Sinn Féin strategist in the town told me to get off the bike, get into a car and carry a briefcase. He wanted me to wear a suit every day. 'You're an Assembly member now, not a councillor, Davy. Dress like one,' he said.

"But that didn't reflect the lifestyle of the community I represented. Sinn Féin has brought its membership along with it but has left the ordinary 5"8 behind. Some are bemused, others are angry. They wonder what all the sacrifices were about, the fighting and the dying, the going to jail and the hunger-strikes?'

Hyland was a politics teacher in Belfast's top Catholic grammar school but had to leave after loyalist death threats. His home still bears the signs: toughened glass, drop bars, and an intercom system. Pride of place in his living-room is a Long Kesh harp.

Four candidates are fighting for two unionist seats. Sitting UUP Assembly member, Danny Kennedy, is safe. But independent unionist Paul Berry, who left the DUP after an encounter with a gay masseur, is unlikely to be re-elected. The new DUP candidate is Armagh mayor and local dairy farmer, Willie Irwin, who entered politics after his son Philip drowned in a swimming pool.

"He was only 15. Dr Paisley came and prayed with us and offered great support. It gave me a new perspective on life. I wanted to put something back into the community," says Irwin.

Anti-IRA victims' campaigner, Willie Frazer, is also standing. "I'm getting a great reception at the doors but you don't know what people will do in the voting booth and you can hardly go in with them!" he jokes. "I'm 50/1 in the bookies. Some of the boys put a few pound on me. You think they'd have better things to do with their money."

Frazer is touring south Armagh in a lorry emblazoned with a hooded gunman against a Stormont backdrop and the slogan, 'No unrepentant terrorists in government'. A friend lent him the lorry: "She lights up at night, you can read her from 1,000 yards away. You hear her too because we're belting out hymns," he says. His election leaflets have been delivered to unionist and nationalist areas: "It's the only time I'll ever get my face through doors in Crossmaglen!"

  • Sinn Féin's viewpoint is absent from this article because it was the only party which refused access to the Sunday Tribune. It said it would not make candidates in any constituency available for interview and it would not cooperate with the newspaper during the entire election campaign. It's an ironic position for a party which, for decades, complained of media bans and censorship. Sinn Féin is also refusing to co-operate with the Sunday Times.

  • March 4, 2007

    This article appeared in the March 4, 2007 edition of the Sunday Tribune.