Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

30 May 1996

Ten years ago today I stood in my last election. (My last election to date, that is - who knows what the future will bring.)

The election was in the middle of the Northern Ireland peace process, for 110 members of a consultative forum who would also be potential delegates to the all-party peace talks chaired by George Mitchell.

Those were wild days. I had moved back to Belfast in 1991 to do the project that eventually became my PhD, and through various channels - in particular, through my existing friendship with the Liberal Democrats' then deputy director of policy, and through my past involvement with the British Irish Association's annual conferences - I am surprised in retrospect that it took me as long as a year and a half to get sucked back into politics. By the end of 1993 I was the Alliance Party's Director of Elections, later renamed Party Organiser. I was a PhD student with not a lot of motivation for the actual topic of my thesis, and basically loved hanging around party headquarters to do whatever jobs needed to be done - not just number-crunching for the proposed new parliamentary boundaries, but also bringing in new canvassing software, and plentiful knocking on doors during local council by-elections - which, quite fortuitously, happened in a number of good areas for us during my period of involvement.

I won't go into huge detail of the mishandling by all sides of the first years of the peace process from the IRA ceasefire of August 1994. I was both too close to it and also not involved in the key decisions. It still stuns me that politicians as thick as Sir Patrick Mayhew, and his sidekick the even more dismal Sir John Wheeler, were put in charge of such delicate negotiations at a key stage of Northern Ireland's history. The particular detail that involved me most, from pretty early on, was the possibility of elections taking place as a part of the peace process, and the likelihood that rather than using wither of the off-the-shelf electoral systems available, the British government (in order to get the Unionists to buy into the process) might decide to go for some sort of closed list system across the whole of Northern Ireland from which talks delegates might be selected.

I (and the Alliance Party) very much opposed this, partly for the principled reason that the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies is simply the best system possible, and partly for the selfish reason that we suspect the party would do less well in a Northern Ireland-wide vote rather than a vote using the 18 new electoral districts (elections for the European Parliament had always been very bad for us) especially if there were no transferable element to the voting system (which does help the Alliance Party punch a little above its weight, though less than conventional wisdom would have it).

The government, of course, were faced with several competing priorities - to get buy-in from the Ulster Unionist Party, and also to try and get the two small Loyalist parties, the UDP and PUP, inserted into the talks somehow. After experimenting with various models including, at one point, an "indexation" system - you would get two seats if you scored between 1% and 5%, three from 5% to 15% and four from 15% up - they eventually came up with a proposal for electing five representatives from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies, plus giving the top ten parties an extra two seats each, all chosen from closed lists.

This was the apogee of my Northern Irish political career. I remember flying to London one day to meet with Sir Patrick Mayhew, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and on the way back pausing at Heathrow Airport to contact Prionsias de Rossa, then one of the leaders of the coalition parties in the Irish government. I had to get him to call me back at the payphone in the airport terminal building. (That government had an unnervingly informal approach to phone calls - I remember sitting in the party headquarters one evening, and answering the phone as it rang: the caller asked for the party leader, explaining that he was John Bruton, the Taoiseach. "Yes, I know who you are..." I replied.)

It was all for nothing, though, and this very peculiar system went ahead. At the start of the campaign my optimistic predictions were that we should get six constituency seats, plus two top-up seats as we should be comfortably the largest party, and we stood a decent chance of another two constituency seats (hoping especially for second seats in East Belfast and East Antrim). I myself was the lead candidate in North Belfast, where we had won one of five seats starting from only 7% in the 1982 Assembly election; I was not foolish enough to expect to come anywhere close to winning, but did hope to at least equal the 6% scored by the party's candidate in the 1992 Westminster election (on slightly different boundaries). We had a good, dedicated team - my election agent was only 17, and most of the rest of the North Belfast branch were pretty elderly, but we covered the territory we needed to cover, the intention being not to actually win but to lay the foundations for winning a seat on Belfast City Council in the 1997 elections (which duly happened).

Most of my time was spent either at headquarters or knocking doors. I did two public meetings. The first was a mild-mannered affair in an upper-middle-class area, after which Dr John Dunlop, the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, dropped me home. The other, on the Crumlin Road/Ardoyne interface was rather more dramatic. The panellists included Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, me, and a bunch of minor parties (I suppose I should say other minor parties). The press were all there for Kelly, but I got my soundbite broadcast anyway thanks to the requirements of fairness from broadcasters. One of the audience accused me of having absolutely no sense of reality because I suggested that the police might not be utterly and irredeemably evil. The audience as a whole were really deciding whether to vote for Kelly or not to vote at all; I don't think I won many for the cause that evening. I departed so rapidly that I forgot my coat, and had to go back for it the next day.

In the event the party's vote dropped, and we won only five of the six seats I had thought were safe (suffering a double squeeze in Lagan Valley, as Catholic voters who had previously voted for us, faute de mieux, opted for the SDLP for the first time, and Protestants voted for the nice "reformed" Loyalists to encourage them to keep up the ceasefire). I scored 4% in North Belfast (along with my two co-candidates). In my PhD thesis, and in the book based on it, I note:
Thanks to the electorate of North Belfast not supporting me in sufficient numbers in May 1996, I did not become their elected representative to the Northern Ireland Forum and multi-party talks and so had enough time to complete this thesis. For some reason I feel more kindly towards the 1,670 who did vote for me.
Election counts are always slightly odd in Northern Ireland - for once, political foes of every stripe are united in their fear of the one common enemy: the voter! Once it became clear (as it did pretty rapidly) that I had no chance of winning, I managed to get hacked into RTE's live radio coverage of the event and stayed in their Belfast studio for the rest of the day, my jaw dropping at the surprisingly high vote for Sinn Fein - they had predicted it almost precisely, and I had pooh-poohed their predictions, an experience that left me with a profound respect for their electoral forecasts which lasted until they screwed up in last year's elections. And so to a rather subdued, but relieved, celebration in the party leader's constituency office in East Belfast.

Of course, just because I wasn't elected didn't mean that I was not involved with the talks once they started. I got a paid political position as one of the researchers to the Alliance delegation, and though I missed the dramatic first night of the talks - where British officials physically restrained the Unionists from occupying the chairs set aside for George Mitchell and his co-chairs - I sat in on a number of the set-pieces for the first six months, including a memorably brutal session at the end of July 1996 following the vicious marching season of that year. Mitchell has written in his own book of his despair after that particular meeting; he was the consummate professional and sounded entirely sincere when he thanked everyone for their heartfelt and vigorous contributions to the discussion, without a hint of irony.

Anyway, at the end of the year I got a job in Bosnia, and my career basically took off in a completely unexpected, and personally much more rewarding, direction. That story can be told another time. But today, I just want to remember the experience of ten years ago. I don't say "never again", but I do say that the next time I stand for election, I want to have a much stronger chance of winning.
Tags: life: autobiography, world: northern ireland

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