Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

General Election: Hugs and handshakes as Foyle candidates get up close and personal on canvass

Leona O'Neill joins the campaign trail in Foyle as polling day looms

Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

If it is a two-horse race in Foyle, the steeds are on the final stretch, racing around the last of their voters at breakneck speed, picking up babies and dogs for photo opportunities and hugging constituents before heading for what is set to be a photo finish.

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On the doors around the constituency, SDLP candidate Colum Eastwood and Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion are telling voters that it is too close a race to call and they need them to come out and vote.

Out on the canvass trail in the nationalist Galliagh estate, Elisha McCallion's home turf, she is fielding queries from constituents, phone calls from her children and demands, leaving her hurrying to get to an event celebrating the working women of Derry.

As she marches down the street with a team of eight - including Raymond McCartney MLA and Martina Anderson MEP - behind her, she shows no signs of the election fatigue the rest of us are suffering.

She tells me she and her husband stayed up until 5am to put up their Christmas decorations, because it was the only time she was not canvassing, and laughs about Gerry Adams turning on her Christmas lights.

Energised, enthusiastic and warm, she hugs constituents on the street, knowing their names and their families, asking about their loved ones and asking them to remember to vote before parting.

She says that thoughts of a united Ireland are prominent on the minds of voters in Galliagh, an area named one of the 20 most deprived neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland.

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"There are a range of issues people are raising at the doors," she says. "Obviously Brexit is on everyone's tongue. In recent days people are quite rightly talking about the crisis in the health service, in education and the need for an Assembly and an Executive, which of course we would agree with.

"They are also talking about the longer-term vision for the island of Ireland. Many people are engaged in the conversation around unity. Obviously we want a functioning Assembly sooner rather than later, one that is sustainable with additional funding. We will be doing what we can next week to try and bring that about.

"But the issues that face this constituency in particular, border areas, and indeed the North - whether that is health or education - ultimately are only going to be really fully resolved when we have a new and agreed Ireland."

There is little evidence of the voter desire for a united Ireland during the short time I join the canvass, but there is little doubt of people's affection for Elisha.

She holds hands with an older woman at one door as they discuss the weather and washing powder, before Elisha asks for her vote.

She shares a joke and a hug with another man, home from work in Dublin; she leaves him with a smile and a "don't forget to vote on Thursday". Over in the mixed village of Eglinton, just outside the city, Mr Eastwood's team is assembling in the dark. Among their number is former MP Mark Durkan, who lost his seat to Ms McCallion by just 169 votes, and Mark H Durkan, the Foyle MLA.

Mr Eastwood says that they have been met with frustration about the political situation at the doors, and indeed passionate vows from many voters that they will back him in race this time around.

At every door people want to talk about serious issues that are impacting their families. He listens, offers a solution and asks them to "make a difference" on Thursday.

"At the beginning of the campaign there was a real frustration that we don't have a voice in Westminster with Brexit," he says. "Also the Stormont issue is really annoying people, the lack of government.

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SDLP’s Colum Eastwood and party colleague Mark H Durkan speak to a constituent

"I think the health crisis that has become more and more obvious over the last few days has actually made that issue more real for people. And they just think we need to be back at work, they don't understand why we are not at Stormont.

"They don't understand why we don't have an MP in Westminster. People just want to be properly represented."

Around the doors there is indeed anger. A unionist voter says he will trust him this time with his vote. Mr Eastwood says he won't let him down.

A teacher invites him in to warm himself at the fire and says she hopes that he will get in and fight for her children and her pupils because schools are on their knees.

A man on another door says he will vote for him "just to keep Sinn Fein out".

"There is a different kind of anger in this election," says Mr Eastwood. "People are now feeling the pinch of there being no government here.

"They can see decisions around Brexit happening soon, and they can see that it's crazy that we're not there.

"Some people who would have voted for Sinn Fein in the past are telling us that they are going to vote for us because of all of that. I think we are getting support from right across the community."

As opposed to Elisha's brand of hugs, there is instead an abundance of enthusiastic handshakes at doors, affirmations that there is another way and vows to get stuck in and make a difference.

Over in the city's Waterside DUP candidate Gary Middleton says Stormont and not Brexit is what he and his team are being faced with at the doors. In the predominantly unionist Irish Street the signs on the window say 'Santa Stop Here', but that welcome doesn't automatically apply to politicians calling on a dark and rainy Monday night.

"The overwhelming message we are getting on the doors is that people want Stormont back," Mr Middleton said.

"It is by far first and foremost in people's minds. People are concerned with the current health crisis, about education. A lot of parents received letters home regarding education funding and those are the issues that are being raised with us.

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The DUP’s Gary Middleton

"We have been saying to people on the doors that we recognise that these are serious issues and that we do want Stormont back, sooner rather than later."

People on the doors say they will come out and vote for Gary because of the work the DUP has done in their area. There are older ladies who say the party helped them with housing issues, families who have had help tackling anti-social behaviour. A woman grips his hand while she talks about how she was helped after burglars targeted her home.

Despite the growing wave of interest in opposing what has been termed the "Betrayal Act" by some loyalists, Mr Middleton says it has not been a big issue on the doors - they are more interested in who the next Prime Minister will be.

"People have said to us that they want Brexit done, they want it over with and they want to move on," he says. "But I think the main issue is Stormont, closer to home.

"People in the unionist community see no Stormont being a bigger threat to the economy and health than Brexit. People are saying to me that they just want to see people back doing their jobs and working with one another.

"People are also greatly concerned about who the next Prime Minister is going to be. People don't want to see Jeremy Corbyn in there - not that there is much love for Boris Johnson either. People are also saying that they feel it is important to come out for a unionist to show support for the Union.

"Sinn Fein, in particular the incumbent MP, have been saying that we need a new Ireland, and unionists recognise that voting for a nationalist party, their vote will be counted as a nationalist vote.

"Unionists are telling me that they support the Union, want to vote for a unionist candidate and want Stormont back up and running."

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