The election on 25 June for Northern Ireland’s new assembly will be
the first in decades where the main parties have campaigned on a
positive, progressive agenda. This is partly because divisions within
the community are no longer as clear cut. Since the referendum last
month, voters are divided not only along sectarian lines, but on whether
or not to support the agreement reached at the all-party
These elections are crucial in ensuring that the assembly is a success,
and that it is not scuppered by parties like the Reverend Ian Paisley’s
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which did not sign the agreement. To
keep votes within their camp, the pro-agreement parties, which range
from Sinn Fein to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), will have to
accentuate the benefits of the agreement, rather than each other’s
differences.The change in rhetoric has required the main parties to
radically rethink their communication strategies.
To this day the instability of the political situation in Northern
Ireland discourages professional PR people from working for political
Even after two years of ceasefire, some politicians are still on
terrorist hit-lists. And, once associated with a political party, it is
often difficult for PR people to return to the private sector, which
generally prefers to remain neutral.
But this has not stopped Sinn Fein from running what for many years has
been easily the biggest and most professional PR team. The party has
press offices in Belfast, Derry, Dublin, London, New York and
Washington, all headed by publicity director Rita O’Hare.
Until recently the more moderate parties have been no match for Sinn
Fein’s PR operation. But over the last two years the moderate unionist
UUP and moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
have hired heads of communication.
David Kerr joined the UUP as party leader David Trimble’s personal
assistant in March 1996, while finishing a post-graduate degree in law,
and almost immediately took responsibility for the party’s
That same year, the SDLP hired communications director Conall McDebitt
to co-ordinate its PR. McDebitt came to Belfast from Dublin, where he
had worked for Republic of Ireland Labour ministers Joan Burton and Rory
Quinn, who is now leader of the Republic’s Labour Party.
According to Stephen Grimason, political editor for BBC Northern
Ireland, the talks at Stormont provided the parties with an impetus to
improve their PR because of the conflicting messages they were trying to
The unionist movement split when the DUP left the talks in the autumn of
1997, and both the UUP and the nationalist parties battled to portray
the negotiations and subsequent agreement as a victory for unionism and
nationalism respectively. ’In the talks spin doctoring was about
defending their position,’ says Grimason.
The talks completed, a six week referendum campaign began. It was
probably the biggest PR push Northern Ireland has ever seen. The UK
Government threw its weight behind the Yes campaign, determined that a
majority of unionists as well as nationalists should support the
agreement. Tony Blair, U2’s Bono, and even Bill Clinton were wheeled out
to support the Yes campaign.
According to a leaked memo by Northern Ireland Office communications
director Tom Kelly, the Government began a massive push to promote the
agreement even before it was signed. McCann-Erickson was hired to carry
out research, using focus groups.
The pro-agreement unionists found themselves on the back foot at the
beginning of the referendum campaign when a handful of UUP politicians
decided to oppose the agreement. ’I lost some of my best performers more
or less overnight,’ says Kerr.
To support Kerr, the party recruited Ray Hayden, a business journalist
with Ulster TV for many years, to help with media relations. An agency,
John Laird PR, was hired to help with advertising and literature, and
Parliamentary Liaison Services to help draft literature.
Even the pro-agreement parties concede that the DUP fought a formidable
referendum campaign. Aware that its ’vote No’ message could come across
as negative, the party devised the slogan ’it’s right to vote No’.
For the referendum and assembly campaigns, the party has tempered the
controversial symbolism of the Union Jack by incorporating its design
into a heart shaped logo. Paisley’s presence has been played down and
the party is being presented as a team of senior politicians. Despite
softening the edges of its image, the DUP, unlike the pro-agreement
parties, is focusing its assembly election campaign on emotive subjects
like the release of terrorist prisoners, decommissioning and the future
of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. DUP communications director StClair
McAlister says: ’Sometimes people are frightened of emotions, the stiff
upper lip, but it is part of life. Emotive means being moved to do
The No campaign tactics proved particularly successful when newspapers
published photos of convicted terrorists at IRA gatherings just before
the referendum vote. By the penultimate week, the Yes campaign was
flagging, with only just over 60 per cent of voters supporting it. Kerr
says: ’People in the No campaign were trying to focus this as a
We had to refocus peoples’ minds on to the central parties and on to the
The image of Trimble and John Hume holding hands at the U2 concert
offered an opportunity to do that. The concert was masterminded by
McDebitt and planned within five days. He describes the event as an
imprint image, which erased the past. He says: ’In many ways that has
changed the way we can now approach the media. Trimble’s grey Protestant
image was shattered.
Hume was a bit too much of a grandfather figure for a lot of people, he
would have been seen as quite tired. That image too has been burnt
For the assembly elections the SDLP and the UUP are living off the
positive mood generated by the U2 concert. It is particularly important
for the two moderate parties not to alienate each other, because they
want to attract votes from each other’s supporters under the single
transferable vote (STV) system being used in the assembly elections.
Under STV, voters can vote for a long list of candidates in order of
priority. After choosing candidates from their preferred party, voters
can chose candidates from their second choice party, and so on.
Kerr says that because of Trimble’s backing for the agreement, unionism
is being seen to have a progressive agenda for the first time in
However, despite the move away from confrontational, sectarian politics,
economic and social issues have not yet taken centre stage in election
debates. The UUP is having to plan its media strategy around the 19 June
Orange Order parade through North Belfast. Both Kerr and McDebitt blame
the media, made cynical by years of troubles, for the lack of social and
It is unlikely such issues will become the focus of Northern Irish
politics until, through the assembly, its parties have the power to make
decisions in these everyday areas of life.
ELECTION: BUILDING THE ASSEMBLY
Northern Ireland’s new assembly will have 108 members. The assembly
is the centrepiece of the agreement reached in the multi-party talks. By
1999, it will have full legislative and executive powers over those
areas that are currently the responsibility of the Northern Ireland
The crucial difference between this assembly and the Stormont
Parliament, which was suspended in 1972, is that the parties will have
to work together, because no decision can be taken without at least 40
percent of both unionist and nationalist members agreeing to it. Without
this proviso, the assembly would be dominated by Protestants, who make
up 60 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland. Six assembly members
will be elected in each of the 18 existing parliamentary constituencies.
Voters will be able to choose a number of candidates in order of
preference.According to the Irish Times, around 280 candidates from more
than 12 political parties will stand for election. The five main
political parties are:
- The moderate Ulster Unionist Party, led by David Trimble. A poll
earlier this month by the Irish Times and MRBI predicted the UUP would
gain 33 per cent of first preference votes in the election. According to
the poll, Trimble is likely to become first minister of the assembly.
The party is fielding 48 candidates.
- The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, led by
John Hume. Predicted to gain 27 per cent of first preference votes. Hume
is likely to be deputy first minister. The SDLP is fielding 38
- The Democratic Unionist Party, led by Rev Ian Paisley. The DUP walked
out of the multi-party talks and is not a signatory to the peace
agreement. Predicted to gain 13 per cent of first preference votes. The
DUP is fielding 34 candidates.
- The extremist republican party Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams. The poll
shows Sinn Fein gaining eight percent of first preference votes, but the
party traditionally underperforms in pre-election polls. Sinn Fein is
fielding 37 candidates.
- The non-sectarian Alliance party hopes to hold the balance of power in
the assembly. It is fielding 22 candidates and is expected to gain 10
percent of first preference votes and the greatest number - 15 per cent
- of second preference votes.