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Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK

Rise of Sinn Fein

By BBC News Online's Marie Irvine

In 1981 Sinn Fein's publicity director Danny Morrison described his party's electoral strategy as one "with an armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other".

The remark passed into common political language.

It was a battlecry for republicans, but unionists saw it as a reminder of the violent campaign of the IRA which was not to cease for another decade and a half.

Twenty years on from the Ard Fheis at which Mr Morrison made that comment, Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

It holds four Westminster seats and has just become the biggest party in six adjoining councils in the west of the province.

These are Dungannon, Cookstown, Magherafelt, Fermanagh, Omagh and Strabane.

The scale of these gains should not be underestimated.

Republicans in Fermanagh, for instance, have not enjoyed this level of support since before the Enniskillen bomb in 1987.

Omagh bomb

Eleven people died when the IRA put a bomb at the town's cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

It made an indelible mark on the town and support for Sinn Fein fell away in the years immediately following.

That support is now back.

Consider the picture in Omagh too.

The bomb which devastated it in 1998 with the loss of so many lives was carried out by the Real IRA, a republican splinter group opposed to the peace process.

There has always been unionist suspicion that the bombers could not have carried out the attack without help or explosives which had once belonged to the provisional IRA.

But there has been no turn-off factor for Sinn Fein.

IRA hungerstrike

It has gained the parliamentary seat for the constituency and two more seats on Omagh district council.

It has overtaken the SDLP in these first elections since the bomb and the council gains have been from unionists.

It is now possible to draw a line across Northern Ireland which divides it into the nationalist west and the unionist east.

From Sinn Fein's perspective, the geographical spread of their support must give the impression that the green western section has already joined the Irish Republic.

Symbolic

It is twenty years since the IRA hungerstrike in which ten republicans starved themselves to death.

Its anniversary is hugely symbolic for republicans who enjoyed an upsurge in support at that time which is now being repeated.

Before the election Michelle Gildernew said of her campaign: "We've been joined by ex-hunger strikers, by ex-blanketmen, by women who were in Armagh jail, by republicans from across this island who find that Fermanagh South Tyrone grasps the imagination."

Sinn Fein has now realised its dream of regaining the seat once held by Bobby Sands and winning the neighbouring constituency of West Tyrone.

It is the biggest force in a clutch of councils west of the River Bann too.

It remains to be seen how it will use its increased electoral strength.


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