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
Thursday 25 June 1998
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.
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