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

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella

books
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Bell in the new BBC series Posh People: Inside Tatler

Review: Posh journalists just can't get enough of each other

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital
    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran