The two frontrunners in the Foyle constituency in next month's Westminster Election have faced up to each for the first time.
The battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Foyle began in earnest at St. Joseph’s Boys’ School in Creggan when current MP, Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion, and the leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, faced questions from sixth form students from St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s and Foyle Colleges.
The Foyle seat is being seen as an important barometer of whether constituents are content with Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy or would prefer representation for Irish nationalism on the green benches which has been absent for the past three years.
In the 2017 election the result was extremely close. Both Elisha McCallion and Mark Durkan polled over 18,000 votes with the former finally edging it by a thin margin of only 169 votes. It was the first time in nearly 100 years that Derry returned a Sinn Fein MP. There is no doubt that it was a dark day for the SDLP losing in their heartland.
Peter Smith, head of politics at St. Joseph’s, decided to organise the event after his son turned 18 on 30th October.
Mr. Smith discovered that in order to vote in the General Election in December, new voters had to be registered online by 21 November. It transpired that there were 24 pupils in the Year 14 cohort who had turned 18 but had not yet registered to vote.
‘It is a very simple process whereby you enter the website www.gov.uk and select 'register to vote.' It just requests a national insurance number and contact details and then you receive confirmation of registration within 10 days and in the unlikely event of any problems, you are advised to contact the electoral office,’ said the Politics teacher.
‘This date is fast approaching and the visit of the politicians was designed to reinforce this message. It was also an opportunity for the politicians to pitch their message to these first-time voters.’
The event commenced with Mr. Smith reminiscing about his experience of being a first-time voter in 1992. In that election the two protagonists were the heroes of Colum and Elisha - John Hume and the late Martin McGuinness. The politics head of department recounted that the grandparents of many of the school’s pupils demonstrated for the vote over 50 years ago and that it was critical that the present millennials register to exercise that vote.
It was then up to the persuasive arguments and passion of the two politicians as to who should get that vote.
The point is register to vote, use it and not take it for granted. The audience were reminded that in the 2017 General Election, Sinn Fein won the seat with a wafer thin majority of 169 votes. It is all to play for.
The first question was asked by Matthew Devine who enquired about what the main issues were in this election other than Brexit. Colum Eastwood responded that the main issues affecting Derry were lack of jobs which resulted in other problems such as hopelessness, mental health issues and poverty. He bemoaned the fact that many young people were forced to leave the town to find meaningful employment and he claimed that the medical school at Magee could be transformational.
Elisha McCallion agreed with much of what Mr Eastwood had outlined but she made the point that partition had failed border areas, particularly in Derry. In her opinion it was time for the British Government to set a date for a border poll and persuade Unionists that their future lay in a united Ireland with one education service and a single healthcare system on the island. Mr. Eastwood concurred with this analysis but disputed Mrs. McCallion’s timetable for unification, claiming what was needed was the reconstitution of the New Ireland Forum. The temperature was turned up a level when the question was posed on Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy. Mrs McCallion presented a cogent case that attendance at West- minster was futile and argued passionately that Scottish and Welsh MPs were largely ignored. She was proud that Sinn Fein MPs had turned their back on Westminster and claimed that English nationalism would never address the interests of Ireland. On the contrary Sinn Fein used their influence in Europe and Dublin to ensure that the North was protected against Brexit.
Mr. Eastwood disputed Sinn Fein’s assertion that they were responsible for protecting the interests of the North and the insertion of the “Backstop.” He credited the Irish Government with this and there was a noticeable shift in tone. Mr. Eastwood opined that Irish nationalism was not heard in the House of Commons and that was where decisions were made.
Jack Gallagher posed a question on Scottish independence. Both candidates agreed that a second referendum on Scottish independence was a distinct possibility. The chair, Mr. Smith, reminded the audience of the visit of John Major and Tony Blair to Magee University six months before the referendum in January 2016. In the Great Hall at Magee, Mr Major warned that Brexit was going to throw the pieces of the constitutional jigsaw into the air and no-one could where they fall. On a lighter note, Jack (who is originally from Scotland) was reassured that Boris Johnson had a plan to build a bridge between Ireland and Scotland.
The final question to the two candidates was if they were elected to Westminster who would they like on the plane beside them on condition it could not be a member of their own party?
This was a mischievous question from Mr. Smith and the panellists knew it! After initially being coy with both said that any “remainer” would do, they both agreed that Alliance leader Naomi Long would be a positive choice in East Belfast. Each candidate went further with Mrs McCallion endorsing Claire Hanna (SDLP) in South Belfast and Colum endorsing John Finucane (Sinn Fein) in the North Belfast constituency – a rare moment of consensus and goodwill in an election which will no doubt become more intense and fiery as election day approaches.
Mr. Smith thanked both candidates for their attendance and wished them well on the campaign trail. Other parties will be invited to the school in the coming weeks. Mr. Smith reiterated the message at the end of the session - “If you are 18, register to vote and use that vote.”
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