Election '97: Belfast's ballot: a tale of two cities

Ulster's tribes maintain their loyalties to reinforce the great divide
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The Independent Online
David McKittrick

Ireland Correspondent

If there is such a thing as passive hostility it was on show at the big Whiterock polling station in West Belfast yesterday. Outside it was a shrine to Gerry Adams while inside was a Royal Ulster Constabulary stronghold. It was a little like Fort Apache, the Bronx.

Visitors could be forgiven for concluding that Adams was the only candidate standing. The Sinn Fein president's likenesses were everywhere, posters all over the lampposts and two large drawings of him tied on to the railings of the graveyard opposite. There were no non-Adams posters.

The Sinn Fein caravan outside contained six women and a girl, one of the women organising sandwiches while others nursed large pieces of cardboard on their knees. Lists of streets, houses and voters had been taped to each piece of cardboard.

On some pieces various names had been highlighted in yellow. On others a variety of highlighters had been used to colour-code the names of the voters. It all looked very complex and highly methodical.

At the gates of the building stood nine men, all Sinn Fein supporters, some handing out leaflets, some just standing around. There were no non- Adams supporters.

Voters walked through a car park and into a hall. To get there they had to pass through a small courtyard in which stood five policemen, all with revolvers, one nursing a rifle. There were no Adams supporters among them.

The voters ignored the police officers and the police ignored the voters. No words or glances passed between them: voters and police might have been invisible to each other.

Across the city, outside a polling station on the Limestone Road, a Protestant area of North Belfast, a single relaxed policeman cooed and talked baby- talk to two toddlers in a double pram: he was minding them while their mother was inside voting.

This little segment of the city is almost 100 per cent Protestant, and its Unionist MP is assured of re-election. But the nationalist vote in the constituency as a whole is rising steadily as the Catholic population increases and the Protestant community dwindles. Many of the more mobile Protestants have simply moved out.

An Ulster Unionist councillor lounged against the railings and worried about the demographics. "The worrying thing about this election is very few young people on our side [are] voting, very few. The vast majority here are all elderly - the young Prods just don't vote.

"Sinn Fein, now, would be all young, they've actually galvanised the young vote on their side."

He and another councillor are ferrying Protestant old people in to vote, one of them a lady of 82. This is essentially a Protestant polling station but a hundred yards up the road is a Catholic church hall where the Catholics, some of them indeed much younger, can be seen casting their votes.

One of the Unionist councillors pointed to a junction in the road and said: "I suppose that's the interface." It is a line as imaginary as the equator but in North Belfast it is full of meaning: houses close to it have grilles on the windows to keep out the bricks.

And on each side of it Belfast's two communities could be seen, in the city's mutually exclusive worlds, trooping dutifully in to vote against each other.