The General Election campaign in Mid-Ulster

To be honest I love going on the stump, all of it! Even though you know it is going to be a very hard campaign. There are none harder than campaigning for a liberal party in the deeply polarised area West of the Bann. The hardest bit is getting started – Knowing that whatever you do, however hard you fight, however good your arguments or your candidates, you are going to lose and lose very big.

The street pounding, the leafleting, the phone calls, the “grip and grin”, the talking, talking, talking, persuasion, persuasion, persuasion, cajoling, joling, joling, joling.

The campaign begins so long before the date that the election is called and yet, yet, yet…

It always ends up a complete rush job done on the back of an envelope, just in the nick of time.

We all mentally start the preparation months before the date that we expect the election to be on, and a couple of months out the party organisation starts to dust itself off and prepare itself for battle.

Now in parties with a chance of winning a seat, this can be a cut-throat business, a long protracted battle of wills, which shakes down into a final confrontation and a poll to get the right candidate. However In my case, the Alliance Party’s case, it was a meeting of 8 endorsing my candidature for Mid-Ulster, because no-one else could be found to do it! Perhaps the sitting MP being Martin McGuinness, and his last majority of 10,000+ votes may give you an indication as to why.

So that was that; a short meeting in Fivemiletown in South Tyrone and I was a candidate for the 2010 General Election. And in addition to that I was election agent for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Now the mechanics of elections are interesting, particularly for a disabled man with blood pressure issues and no resources of any kind.

The crushing weight of my illness was always going to be a factor and so it proved as each day of campaigning was followed by a day of rest. My first task was notify the press of my candidature and ensure that the papers were properly filled in by the candidates and agents for Nomination day. A nomination is a process requiring 10 signatures before a candidate can stand. Each signature has to be from a resident of the constituency where the nominee is standing. In Fermanagh that was simple: I corralled friends and family in and it took me a morning and a few litres of petrol.

For Mid-Ulster it took 14 hours and a tank of petrol!! I drove around the wilds of Cookstown, Maghrafelt, Pomeroy, rustling up friends of friends of friends of party workers. My last name was a 91-year-old friend of the local priest who knew some guy who once voted for us. I turned up at 9.30, just as she was getting in the bath. The woman is a hero to the democratic process.

My nomination form complete, it was then necessary for it to be handed in to the Returning Officer. They are the people that read the results on election night!! In my case a lovely woman named Rae who treated me like I was someone important.

A local reporter takes my name, then photographs for the paper and we’re off!

As an aside I had to hand my form into the EONI office in Ballymena. A place I had no previous knowledge of. I trudged there and, not knowing the way, stopped in a garage in the centre of town. I asked for the office and was directed across the road. Leaving my car at the garage, I mooched across returning when the nomination was complete. The girl behind the counter then asked me what I was doing having my photo taken. I explained and she said, “Oh My God, I am so sorry, are you famous by any chance?!!!!!”

There you are, Warhol proved right, my 15 minutes of fame!!!

So then what follows is weeks of talking, knocking down doors, gate-crashing debates and forever being asked questions, and rebutting accusations, to arrive tired and mentally shell-shocked on election night.

I arrived having driven from Enniskillen to Ballymena, through South Antrim.

The Seven Towers Sports Centre was packed to the rafters with every different shade of political opinion: Sinn Fein, DUP, UCUNF, SDLP, TUV… everyone. There must have been hundreds in there. Sadly there were only three of us from the Alliance.

The Sports centre was home to two counts. First up was Ian Paisley Jnr and his fight for North Antrim, then there was the fight for Mid Ulster, my count.

The North Antrim vote pitched Paisley against the leader of the TUV Jim Allister – very much a battle for the soul of unionism.

When I arrived this count was just ending and it was clear that the DUP had won. It was also clear that it wasn’t close either.

At the end of the North Antrim count there was a lot of cheering, braying, taunting and frankly some difficult scenes to describe as the various contestants in the race left the building. It reminded me of the time I walked onto the platform at Paddington in the middle of two sets of rival football supporters. Just one spark was needed to ignite the conflagration. Mercifully no spark was lit and things settled down.

I decided to step outside and had a conversation with the DUP candidate for Mid Ulster, Ian McRae, who had just arrived at the count. We chatted congenially and he mentioned something that set my pulse racing:

The 2010 Election will be remembered for many things, but for us in the Alliance it will always be the result in East Belfast. At approximately 00.45 the stunning news came that Peter Robinson, the Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, had been beaten by Naomi Long I ran to find a TV just in time to see it announced. I ran into a huddle of DUP members who were chattering nervously. The result came just as I elbowed to the front. I yelped “Yesss! Come ON!!!!!”

Like a football chant, like saluting a great move in sport, it was an almost animal scream of passion.

We had done it.

In Northern Irish terms it was a political earthquake. A 9.9 on the Richter scale, earthquake, which could mean a massive shift in politics in Northern Ireland.

My scream had completely silenced the room and it took me a while to realise that the room was full of the other parties represented at the two counts. I looked round and there glaring at me were the DUP supporters. I decided to make a quick escape, meeting the Alliance candidate for North Antrim and her agent we went off to get coffee.

The rest of the evening was a complete anti-climax. I trotted off to my count and suffered the dismay of watching my very small pile of votes dwarfed by the gigantic piles of crosses for Martin McGuinness. I exchanged pleasantries with him as well as the other candidates, and at 3.30 a.m. I was called to an ante-chamber and stood whilst the returning officer announced:

I Rae Kirk, being the returning officer for the constituency of Mid-Ulster, do declare that the votes cast for each candidate were as follows:

  • Ian Butler: 397
  • Martin McGuinness: 21,678
  • The rest was a bit of a distant memory and I clapped and reflected how much I would have liked to stand in a winnable seat.

    I was feeling confused, I was elated for Naomi and felt upset by my poor show.

    My phone rang in the car. It was the party Director congratulating me.

    I must have shown my disappointment, for he told me in percentage terms I had doubled the vote and handed me over to Naomi and that really made my night.

    I returned to my in-laws’ knowing that whatever happened I did my bit for democracy.

    The voters in Mid Ulster had a choice. They didn’t choose me but at least they had a choice.

    Ian Butler was the Alliance candidate in Mid-Ulster for the 2010 General Election.

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    26 Comments

    • A very moving article. Thank you Ian, and good luck.

    • Matthew Huntbach 25th May '10 - 5:24pm

      I still do not understand how anyone who shares my religion could vote for an evil man like Martin McGuinness. I am sorry, but I cannot interpret my faith in any other way than one which says he is guilty of mortal sin to use the technical term. I would extend that to anyone who gives their support to him by voting for him. It is quite obvious the violence he endorsed and they do by voting for him achieved nothing but postponement of a solution and deepening of the divide and hatred.

    • Well done! Flying the flag for the Alliance in Martin McGuinness’s constituency shows more character and commitment to liberalism than standing almost anywhere else. As a lazy liberal I’m so pleased that there are people like you in our movement.

    • Thank you very much for doing your bit for democracy Ian, I agree that it is very important that your community had a choice.

      Towards the end of watching the count, my anti-Tory father kept frantically adding the numbers for Lib Dem and Labour together, and I kept pointing at the “Others” box, and yelling “There is an Alliance in there.” I think he must have assumed I had made a mistake or something.

    • Paul McKeown 25th May '10 - 6:31pm

      Ian,

      You are a hero and I salute you. The first time I ever voted was for an Alliance candidate in a local government election in South Down, if I remember things rightly. Of course there was no hoping of returning the candidate, but I did the right thing. I have now a long voting record of voting for no-hopers, further APNI candidates, Liberal SDP Alliance, Liberal Democrat candidates. Never had a candidate returned once, never voted for a party that became part of the governing faction in whatever body was being elected. Until early in the morning of the 7th of this month. Naomi Long returned as MP for the House of Commons. I cheered so loud I’m surprised it wasn’t heard 300 miles (or whatever it is) away in Belfast. I cheered again and again, drank some beer and cheered yet again. The results for my beloved Liberal Democratic party were a mixed bag, but the result for my equally beloved Alliance Party of Northern Ireland was truly a starquake. Of course it was an intensely personal against Peter Robinson and the dubious dealings of himself and his family, but beyond that, I am optimistic enough to believe that it also represents a shift in politics in Northern Ireland, for, of course, the electors could have supported another unionist candidate, but didn’t. One thing disappoints me rather, which is that on the first occasion in which an APNI parliamentary candidate was returned to Westminster, that MP will not be sitting alongside the Liberal Democratic faction, but opposite. The reasons for this are, of course, entirely natural, but I would urge the Liberal Democrat MPs not to forget the little flame-haired Alliance supernova, but to keep warm relations, open doors, and open ears when business pertaining to Northern Ireland passes through the House. And of course, Naomi Long in some later parliament will undoubtedly sit alongside her LD partners.

      I wish her every success in this parliament and at least 50 years representing East Belfast!

      Three cheers!

    • Cheltenham Robin 25th May '10 - 8:29pm

      What a great read – thanks

    • “…on the first occasion in which an APNI parliamentary candidate was returned to Westminster, that MP will not be sitting alongside the Liberal Democratic faction, but opposite…”

      Yes it seems a poor response for all the support the Alliance has received from the Lib Dems over the years.

    • how on earth for people vote for a terrorist like mcguiness, or indeed gerry adams.
      Anyway very good piece, well done

    • Paul McKeown 25th May '10 - 9:40pm

      jim

      Why is it a poor response? The party’s are independent but have a great deal in common and are friendly. I find it very rational. Naomi Long needs to defend the interest of voters in East Belfast and more widely in Northern Ireland. I can understand entirely why they have taken the opposition benches. I don’t see any reason it should damage relations between the two parties and as I said, I would hope that LD MPs and, in particular, ministers should welcome submissions, requests and intereventions from their Alliance colleague, in chamber, in committee and in private. Everything that the LD party can do for Alliance in government will improve the electability of Alliance candidates in future to the benefit of both of our parties.

    • Thank you Ian.
      I couldn’t help give a massive cheer when the
      East Belfast result was announced on the
      BBC World TV election broadcast which was
      during mid-morning in Thailand.

    • “not to forget the little flame-haired Alliance supernova”

      Is this reference to Naomi Long’s height and hair colour really necessary?

    • Paul McKeown 26th May '10 - 11:07am

      @RCM

      Oh for goodness sake.

    • East Belfast is a combination of the old working-class East Belfast of terraced houss and shipyards, where the Northern Ireland Labour Party pushed the Ulster Unionists close a couple of generations ago, and the modern, socially mixed suburbia of Dundonald and Castlereagh, where the APNI has had some successes historically. If sectarian politics is to fall apart in Ulster, this is the kind of place where we should expect to see the first cracks.

      Matthew Huntbach is brave enough to put his head over the parapet and tell us the truth about Ulster terrorists and their latter-day political spawn. They are not freedom fighters, but fascist thugs.

    • Paul McKeown 26th May '10 - 2:57pm

      “Naomi Long: I regret my mum wasn’t there to see me win” – from the Belfast Telegraph: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/politics/election/naomi-long-i-regret-mum-wasnrsquot-there-to-see-me-win-14801229.html

    • @Paul McKeown,

      Nothing offensive about the article on that link, it doesn’t make the same implication that there might be a link between her appearance and the nature of a “supernova”. You probably did not mean to imply that there was a connection between the two, but having lived all my life in the south of England, where the belief that my (red) hair colour = about to explode is very common, I know there are too many people in this region who would read what you wrote as validation of their stereotyped ideas. I have been to other parts of the UK, and abroad, and found no such attitude there, but there are people in this region who would read what you wrote as validation of their stereotyped ideas.

      I really am delighted that there is a liberal voice representing East Belfast at Westminster, and that there are people campaigning for the liberal cause, even where it seems futile.

    • Thanks for all your feedback. In addition to being the candidate in Mid-Ulster, I was the Agent for Vasunhara Kamble in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which was rewarding but again futile interms of the result. However we ran a great campaigm there which I will be forever proud of.

      The reasons for people voting for Martin McGuinness are many and complex and mostly unknown to many across the UK. I hope to post occasional pieces here, that hopefully will inform how things are changing in Northern Ireland. Naomi’s reult is an awesome confirmation of the power of a positive message and I hope that it will be duplicated all over Northern Ireland in the months to come.

    • Paul McKeown 26th May '10 - 6:13pm

      @Ian Butler

      “I hope to post occasional pieces here, that hopefully will inform how things are changing in Northern Ireland.”

      I look forward to that.

      “Naomi’s reult is an awesome confirmation of the power of a positive message and I hope that it will be duplicated all over Northern Ireland in the months to come.”

      I hope so, too. Good luck.

    • Declan Wilson 26th May '10 - 9:59pm

      Nice article.
      It brings back memories of campaigning for the Alliance Party in the 1980s. The highlight of election night for me was East Belfast (I went numb with shock) I just couldn’t beleive it. I hope Naomi is getting plenty of Lib Dem support irrespective of what side of the house she sits on.

    • I hope she likes working in Westminster, and her constituents like her work, so she gets even more of a swing to Alliance next time.

    • What Ian hasn’t mentioned is that he is originally from Birmingham (I think, if it’s not Birmingham I’m sure he’ll let me know). For an Englishman representing a bit of a no-hope party to double his vote in Martin McGuinness’ seat is a real achievement.

      Paul, I know exactly how you felt. I was disappointed for the Lib Dems, we had had that poll bounce and people were starting to take us seriously and yet this didn’t materialise on the night. At the same time I was over the moon about the East Belfast result (especially as I live in East Belfast). I didn’t come down for about three days.

    • Matthew Huntbach 27th May '10 - 11:39am


      The reasons for people voting for Martin McGuinness are many and complex and mostly unknown to many across the UK.

      I do have some idea, and from that I repeat what I said – any Catholic who voted for him when the IRA were still active is, in my opinion based in detailed research into Catholic teaching, guilty of mortal sin. Unless they repent for their support of murder, they will die in a state of mortal sin. I apologise for using this religious language, but I feel I have to in these circumstances, just as I would if I were a Muslim faced with terrorism claiming to be inspired by Islam. Saying this, I acknowledge that the IRA never claimed to be inspired in any way by Catholicism, so the analogy is not perfect.

    • Hi Yellowsmurf!

      I used to live near Birmingham and I am English. I was born in Scotland but lived most of my childhood in Wiltshire. I came here after a stroke in 2008 so my learning curve in Northern Irish politics has therefore been very steep along with my pronunciation! I still get terrible stick every time I say Omagh.

    • Paul McKeown 9th Jun '10 - 1:52pm

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