Fighting over common ground - In the run-up to next week’s historic election in Northern Ireland each party has found itself treading new and unfamiliar communications ground. Juliette Garside reports

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 negotiations.

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

put out.

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

Trimble/Adams agreement.

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

economic debate.

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.


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.

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