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Sinn Fein faces challenge for its west Belfast heartland

Constituency holds mythic place in republican history, but the party faces dogfight with People Before Profit for vital seats, writes Malachi O'Doherty

West Belfast has a mythological importance for republicans. The area is spoken of with a reverence that Pearse and the earlier generation of republicans had for the west of Ireland. They had a sense that the simple people of the wild coast were the touchstone of authentic Irishness.

So Pearse loved Mayo and Connemara, and even within later tourism brochures and anthropological studies it seemed that the people of the stony ground and the barren fields were somehow more representative of real Ireland than the city dweller, the trader or the politician might be.

Now, many modern republicans still love the barren coast and the smell of burning turf, but the west of Belfast has taken on a similar relevance for them.

This is where the Provisional movement was born.

In the mid-1960s there was a small grouping of IRA men and Fianna boys. They had their swearing in ceremonies in a room in the old Ard Scoil, the Irish language centre where children from the Catholic schools came to mix and speak Irish and dance and earn their fainne brooches.

The Falls Road was narrower then, running into Divis Street, which was narrower still. There was no ring road cutting through it.

And life was basic and mostly peaceful.

This was the crucible of the Troubles.

The ingredients in the mix included poverty and unemployment, the atrocious housing. I knew large families which spread themselves out at night, with children sleeping on sofas and mats in the scullery, stepping over each other on the way to the toilet outside.

The IRA and the British Army shook all this up, yet republicans preserved and embellished a story about the perfect community there.

Gerry Adams, even while urging on the bombing campaign, was writing little stories about the banter of the women on their doorsteps, the wakes, the music and the culture.

And he came to be the figurehead of the whole road.

In some ways the tension between the IRA armed campaign and the republican political project was played out in west Belfast, or more precisely in the Belfast West constituency.

Adams had been trying to persuade governments and his IRA comrades that the growth of Sinn Fein as a political party was an alternative to war.

He was mocked by some in the Belfast Brigade when he started out on that project, but showed results with gains for councillors and his own grasp of the seat.

The British mistake, later acknowledged by Jonathan Powell, was not cutting Sinn Fein some slack.

But the setback that made peace processing urgent for Adams was the loss of that seat in 1992 to the SDLP's Joe Hendron.

I remember Hendron being scoffed at by his own party colleagues when he argued that regaining the seat had forced Adams's hand, but there is much on the record now, in the published letters of Danny Morrison for instance, to back that argument.

It was the electoral setback in Belfast West that forced Adams and Sinn Fein to accept that the political and military paths were incompatible, that a Sinn Fein candidate would lose votes if the IRA stayed in play.

So it was in west Belfast that the peace process was affirmed. It was there that the guns first came out in 1969, and it was there that the decision was taken to put them away again and let Sinn Fein grow unhindered by the 'army', which had managed it until then.

It was there that another key republican concept was hammered out, the idea of the 'Community'.

It's a scary word as spoken by some.

The Community is not the neighbourhood. It is not the electorate of the constituency. It is, somehow, the real people. The Community has a coherent heart, a fixed opinion. It's spokespeople are not necessarily their elected representatives.

The Community is always judged to be decent, upright, good-hearted, and always speaks well of the IRA.

The creation of the concept of the Community was a propaganda masterstroke and a political device, for it enabled people to say that they were more truly representative of west Belfast than others who might have lived next door.

Adams was of the constituency and of the Community.

And while plausibly grounded in the streets of Belfast West, he grew into a globally honoured statesman.

That is, he got his neighbourhood discussed and its needs attended to in the White House in Washington. He was the local boy made magnificent.

But what have we now but a constituency that has lost its mythic aura and its bearded champion?

West Belfast has been transformed since the start of the Troubles, with wider, cleaner roads, better housing and much more crime, drug use and car theft.

It feels more Irish now. When I was young there were no Irish language shopfronts.

Armed gangs masquerading as republican purists have extended the vigilante procedures that were developed by the Provos.

If you see a man with a limp on the Falls Road, the likelihood is that he was shot in the leg by some gouger with a political badge. And you can tell by his age which generation of republicans most likely did it.

And looking at the election posters, you can see the old familiar faces of Fra McCann and Alex Maskey, both of them surely ready for a rest. Then there's Pat 'Sheeky' Sheehan and Orlaithi Flynn, both of them appointed by the party to fill places vacated by Adams and Jennifer McCann, and guaranteed a vote anyway because it's a vote for Sinn Fein, whoever is standing.

Both, like their predecessors, are in the IRA lineage, Sheehan through his own bombs, Flynn through her father's. Which makes you wonder if there is something dynastic about the republican movement.

Is it not pulling in enough talent from outside its core camp, or does it not favour that talent when it finds it?

In the real world, those tired old hands, McCann and Maskey, neither of them ever noted for expressing an original thought, would be ready for the bin. Similarly, in the real world, Flynn would be judged to be pitching herself too high and too early.

Sheehan would have had to impress with his eloquence before getting a vote.

In the coming election the battle hardens between Sinn Fein and its upstart rival People Before Profit, as well as the SDLP.

There is a crowded field now for only five seats and someone is going to be cut down to size.

And Belfast West will make a little history again.

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