How angry is this man? Today we'll find out

For many Unionists, Ulster's new deal is a bad deal - and in today's assembly elections, they will vote for hardliners like Denis Watson. By Nicole Veash

Portadown has stolen the Shankhill's crown. The West Belfast district, long the spiritual heartland of Ulster Unionism, went "soft", some would say, when it embraced the Good Friday agreement. But you can rely on Portadown. Portadown will always be there with its battle lines at the ready and its defiant upholding of the Union; its pictures of the Queen and its betrayed, angry people.

Denis Watson is one of them. He is challenging Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble as independent candidate for the new Northern Irish assembly in today's election. His party is the hastily formed United Unionist umbrella group, created to represent the No voters after last month's Yes vote. He's got just a few streets left to canvass on the Protestant working class Corcrain Estate when the skies tear open: "I feel terribly guilty," he says, looking at his cheap, hastily printed blue and white leaflets. "These are all waterlogged and in a terrible state. But I haven't got many left now so I hope people don't mind too much."

Watson opens the gate to the nearest house and walks up the path of an immaculate, green-carpeted garden, staring at pots of orange lilies as he goes. "Hello, I'm with the United Unionists," he says. "I wonder if I can rely on your vote? I can? Well good, thanks very much."

Instead of smiling broadly and turning to go, as any experienced politician would when speaking to the converted, Watson gets into discussion about the best way to grow the famously symbolic orange lilies.

Portadown is a tough town. Nationalist and Loyalist communities are divided by a canyon of sectarianism. The breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force, the small, hard line paramilitary group, holds court on some of the estates. But beyond that, you have Protestants who staunchly believe their cultural identity, with its bands, sacred marching routes, bowler hats and Union Jacks, is being whittled away by the rest of the world.

Watson is carrying their hopes. He's never had any political ambition, never even stood for the local council, but he's been thrust into the political bear-pit by a community awash with hard men and no leaders.

When David Trimble triumphantly clasped hands with Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster's King of No Surrender, at Drumcree's Orange Parade in 1995, Portadown took the then marginal Ulster Unionist to their hearts. They elected Trimble as MP for Westminster and effectively helped catapult him into his present position as leader of the official Ulster Unionist Party.

But since their leader declared himself in favour of the peace process, things are different round here. Although the people of Portadown are vehemently against the accord, many say they would never vote for Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist crew. Traditionally, they would support the UUP, but their party, they say, has let them down.

Jane, a local young mother, puffs furiously on her fag as four-year-old Emma runs round the garden in the pouring rain. "Trimble daren't show his face round here nowadays," she says, blowing smoke impatiently through her nose. "If I ever see him, I'll give him a piece of my mind.

"We all trusted him. We really believed he would stand up for the Unionists. But he's singing a different tune now and has made us look like complete fools."

Watson hands her a soggy leaflet. Later, he says: "There's real hate round here. I still find the strength of feeling surprising. They feel angry and let down by David," he says, carefully choosing his rival's first name. I might be a reluctant politician because never in my wildest dreams would I choose a political life if I thought there was another option."

Watson is very popular around Portadown. The 46-year-old is grandly titled County Armagh Grand Master of the Orange Order, Ulster's equivalent of a grandmaster Freemason.

"People look to me because of my position in the Orange," he says. "I would never have dreamed of standing against David but so many people asked me to because they feel very let down. If there was another candidate from our party standing against the Good Friday agreement in Portadown, there is no way I would ever have stood."

One woman, whose house looked onto the green fields surrounding Drumcree Church, quietly explained her position. "Trimble was always our man in the past, but he won't support us now. My whole family marches in the Orange Parade at Drumcree and we are never going to give that route up. I'll vote for Denis here on Thursday because somebody needs to tell the world that we are still here and won't be silenced by our politicians."

The disillusionment and isolation is clear. "These people already feel as though they are under siege," says Watson, a former UUP member himself. "They don't want people like me wrecking the new assembly, but they do want to make sure their voices are heard."

As we stand talking on the corner of Drumcree Grove, while the red, white and blue bunting flaps furiously in the rain soaked wind, three young men stare at us from the other side of the street. For a moment, no-one says anything. Then one asks: "Who are youse? If youse are Trimble's people, you'd better get out."

The expression on the young man's face changes when Watson assures him he's got the wrong man.

"I've got two sons to bring up," explains 34 year old Steve, a builder, "and I want to make sure they grow up knowing our culture. I'm not an extremist in some paramilitary organisation, or even a real right winger, I am just typical of the people who live round here. We will not let the likes of Trimble let us down again."

House after house, to a man and a woman, the residents of this well-cared for estate said they would all be voting for No candidates in today's election.

"We've been getting reactions like this all week. I know our message has stronger resonance in areas like this, but you've got to remember," says Denis Watson, "that these people previously voted David into office."

Implicitly, Trimble's party has underestimated the strength of feeling in pockets of his Upper Bann constituency. The UUP has already issued several personal attacks on Watson, condemning his betrayal of party and criticising him for not voicing his concerns in their party meetings.

"It sounds really naive," says Watson, "but my eyes have really been opened since I started campaigning. I never expected personal attacks but I can only assume they think I've got a good chance of getting a seat in the assembly. Although I wish I was so sure."

During the 1996 Drumcree stand-off, when the local Orange march ended in a pitched battle between Protestants and Catholics, Watson was only one of a few influential Orange leaders willing to speak the language of resolution. "My position hasn't hardened today," he says. "I'm not going to use Drumcree as a political issue to get me into office. I've never wanted office. I don't reject the whole agreement but I do have serious problems with things like the prisoners issue. I'm not naively thinking that all the Orange men of Portadown are going to vote for me. They won't. But people here tell me I'm the reasoned alternative to David."

As the rain subsides, more people come out onto the streets to chat with the canvassers. One elderly man brings out a large, round sheet of glass. On it he has engraved a picture of Drumcree Church, the legend "We Will Walk" and the years 1995, 1996 and 1997. There is a blank under the last date. "What shall I do about 1998?" the man asks. "You put it in," says Watson.

"And 1999 too," shouts someone from next door's front garden.

If a strong contingent of 30 No candidates, like Denis Watson, are elected to the 108-member assembly, they will constitute a threat to Ulster's new deal. But seasoned Ulster watchers say that at best 25 No candidates will get seats today, still enough to be a constant reminder that large sections of the Protestant community have not signed up to the Good Friday agreement.

One local sage once said only when you resolve Portadown, will you resolve the Troubles. As the rest of Ulster rushes to embrace a new, uncertain future in today's election, Portadown's residents remain shoulder-to-shoulder a vanguard against the rollercoaster change sweeping the province. But the silence won't last for long. Portadown isn't just another wound in the body of Unionism. It's a limb, about to fall off. And in coming weeks, this last bastion will transform itself into the bitterest battle ground.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us