Election '97: English Tory finds no meanness on the streets of Belfast

David McKittrick on Ulster's good-natured election campaign
Click to follow
The Independent Online
At 9am yesterday, Sarah Dines, Conservative candidate for East Belfast, was being hugged by John Major in Belfast city centre. At 11am she was standing in the rain in an urban republican enclave, surrounded by Sinn Fein posters and anti-British murals.

It was all a far cry from her Essex home. The Prime Minister had been enclosed in a phalanx of security but in the Short Strand, a tiny speck of Catholic green in the otherwise red white and blue Protestant sea of East Belfast, Ms Dines was accompanied only by her husband.

An energetic barrister, she has been amazed at just how different things are in Northern Ireland. "Electioneering is infinitely more civilised here than on the mainland," she said. "When I was a Basildon district councillor I had leaflets torn up in front of me. I would actually get spat on in some of the council estates, there was so much vitriol."

Belfast, by contrast, turns out to be a much more well-behaved place. "People are far nicer here," she enthused. "They are genuinely really polite and mild-mannered. The average man on the doorstep will say, 'Well, no, I'm not your supporter but good luck to you,' and he'll smile. It's so refreshing."

East Belfast is Peter Robinson's kingdom, held by the Democratic Unionist party deputy leader for nearly two decades. There is no real chance of Ms Dines deposing him although, as she said, "if everybody who has promised to vote for me does, then I'm the next MP for East Belfast." Belfast-style courtesy extends, it seems, into the realm of the diplomatic falsehood.

The promises to vote for her have all come from Protestant districts. In Short Strand yesterday she won no pledges of support but, just as she had predicted, everyone was polite and good-mannered, and no one told her to get back to England.

Instead, two old ladies smiled and chatted amiably. "I vote for whoever I take a fancy to on the day," laughed one. "I vote for Sinn Fein, always," said the other, pleasantly enough. They were unimpressed by Ms Dines's observations that people in Northern Ireland had much more money spent on them than elsewhere in the UK: they may be polite in the Short Strand, but gratitude to British governments is in short supply.

The only thing that really scandalised Ms Dines was the number of non- voters. "I don't vote at all, none of my family do," said an old lady. Another woman shook her head: "I don't vote, no. Couldn't care, to be honest with you." A local shopkeeper, a jovial man in a striped blue apron, said cheerfully: "Haven't voted for 20 years. Wife's the same."

After a string of such responses Ms Dines was almost pleading. "You should vote," she told one woman imploringly. "Women had to fight very hard to get the vote in the first place, you know." The woman was unmoved.

In a shop, Ms Dines made her pitch to a woman shop assistant who said she supported Sinn Fein. "We are the only national party here. We want an end to sectarianism, we don't care what religion or what colour you are. The fight really should be on whether you're Conservative or socialist. I wouldn't vote on the basis of religion," said the candidate. "Neither would I," said the woman, levelly.

Each made their points, then Ms Dines bought a jar of marmalade and they parted on the best of terms, leaving one to wonder why all political discourse could not be conducted in such a civilised, gracious manner.