Election '97: Voters dream of day when hope and history rhyme

Sinn Fein presents itself as party of peace
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Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein canvasses in the shadow of Bellaghy bawn, a fortified farmhouse dating back three centuries. The bawn is a metaphor of possession and dispossession: the election much the same story, a modern enactment of ancient quarrels.

This is pleasant countryside with an unpleasant history. The bawn was built on a jutting rise to house Protestants, sent from England to subdue this rebellious land for English monarchs.

The records show that John Rowley and Baptist Jones were given 3,200 acres of south Londonderry countryside to hold for England during the plantation. No one here has forgotten that it was Catholic land.

Today's political equivalent is the seat of Mid-Ulster, which has a nationalist majority but which since 1983 has been held by the Rev William McCrea. Mr McCrea, a follower of the Rev Ian Paisley, is on the furthest shores of political loyalism: he is the extremist's extremist.

His bawn is now under assault from Mr McGuinness of Sinn Fein and from the SDLP's Denis Haughey, one of John Hume's personal aides. The contest gives an insight into the state of opinion within northern nationalism, and thus the prospects for a new peace process.

Seamus Heaney, a local man, wrote of a time when hope and history might rhyme. In Bellaghy, there is both much hope and if anything a surfeit of history, and in this election they are inextricably entwined.

Mr McGuinness's doorstep patter reflects what are clearly the twin aspirations of nationalist voters, a new peace process and a McCrea defeat. "This is a very important election," he says to a balding man who is still blinking from the surprise of opening his door to the Sinn Fein leader. "We're trying to use this election to do two things. First, to rebuild the peace process - we see it as a new opportunity for a peace settlement with a new British government. And it's also the best opportunity nationalists will ever have to get rid of Willie McCrea as MP." The message is a concise blend of the aspirational and the tribal.

Mr Haughey, meanwhile, directs his fire against both Mr McCrea and Mr McGuinness. A lot of those who voted for Sinn Fein in last year's forum election, he argues, did so "as a very sincere honourable well-intentioned gesture to try to encourage the IRA to make the peace". But now they feel let down and will come back to the SDLP, he says. A successful vote for Sinn Fein would make peace less likely, he argues: "I think the IRA would conclude that they can win votes without delivering peace."

Mr McCrea, meanwhile, concentrates on the defence of his parliamentary bawn. Quite a few on the Unionist side have no great love for the him, but at election times they turn out in force to do their constitutional, political and tribal duty.

This time his seat is in its greatest peril, for three reasons: boundary changes have been unhelpful; he faces in Mr McGuinness one of republicanism's best-known figures; and his support for a loyalist paramilitant looks like galvanising nationalists into a determined attempt to unseat him.

Last September, he appeared on the platform at a rally in support of Billy Wright, a hardline paramilitant who has openly associated himself with loyalist violence. Mr Wright is not now in a position to return the favour by canvassing for the MP, for he has since been jailed for eight years for threatening to kill a woman.

The balding man told me later: "McCrea went on a stage with Billy Wright. That's turned everybody against him." And yet many of those expressing abhorrence about Mr Wright's alleged associations with violence are gearing up to vote for Mr McGuinness, whose reputation is not that of a pacifist.

This is partly because a lot of them are republicans who support or tolerate the IRA, but also because they seem to believe Sinn Fein when it says it wants peace. Something important has changed here, as can be seen both from the Sinn Fein message, and the message they are getting back on the doorstep - a deep desire for peace.

Mr McGuinness himself says: "Everybody wants peace and everybody wants to see another ceasefire and everybody wants to see real negotiation."

Thus the McGuinness doorstep presentation is designed to reflect nationalist voters' concerns: the toppling of Mr McCrea and a new ceasefire.

Mr McCrea may or may not survive. But the most important thing is that Sinn Fein candidates are receiving the message that the grassroots are hoping and indeed expecting another IRA cessation after the election. This in itself is enough to keep alive the hope that peace remains a possibility, and that hope and history may yet come to rhyme.