Orange and green battle lines drawn

The Westminster elections are five weeks away, and while the rest of the UK will vote on bread-and-better issues, here in Northern Ireland, the Orange-Green attitude is as strong as ever – with Upper Bann a prime example of the whole ethos of arid Ulster politics.

Sinn Fein has stated that Upper Bann is one of their prime targets to wrest from unionism. The statement is based in the premise that you must vote for us, so that we will sweep out the big, bad unionists who denied your civil rights for so long. So much for looking to the past, not the future.

The unionists are equally intransigent, and the Portadown Times understands that the constituency was almost included in the shabby UUP-DUP pact that pertains in north and south Belfast, in neighbouring Newry-Armagh and in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Again, it’s a call to “keep us Orange” and to heck with social and economic policies.

The SDLP, to their credit, have shied away from such blatant sectarianism, and the usual 5,500 votes for their Upper Bann candidate Dolores Kelly could end Sinn Fein’s hopes more than the David Simpson (DUP) versus Jo-Anne Dobson ‘split’ that so many pundits are rabbiting on about. It must be said that the SF “abstentionist” policy that precludes them from entering Westminster is archaic in the extreme. After all, they embrace Stormont and the local councils with unbridled zest.

There’s a fifth candidate in there – Alliance’s Peter Lavery – but the fact that Upper Bann is stony ground for that party simply underlines the divisions here.

The unseemly row between the UUP and DUP this week does neither group much credit. The UUP claim that the numbers in the constituency are such that Upper Bann can sustain two unionists and that SF will be also-rans. But the Simpson camp retorts that their man and SF’s Catherine Seeley are the only two who can triumph.

They haven’t done their arithmetic too well, for the 2010 figures show that both Simpson and the UUP’s Harry Hamilton finished ahead of strong SF candidate John O’Dowd, but let’s not get trapped in sectarian statistics. Let’s vote for the person we will best represent us, and vote for democracy.

Maybe they would all do well to take their example from the late, departed Harold McCusker, the last MP of the County Armagh constituency and the first in Upper Bann in the mid-1980s re-organisation. Mr McCusker was something of a rabid socialist and took the seats comfortably with a vote that was, to an extent, cross-community. The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon was an opponent and an admirer.

One of the last polls for the Armagh seat, for example, saw the intervention of burgeoning the DUP, and far from screaming “Split vote!” McCusker declared that this was democracy and he would take on all-comers. He did, and trounced all concerned.

He also tried to woo the weak Labour administration when the UUP would have had the balance of power at Westminster, but he was a lone visionary and was isolated by his small-minded colleagues. We could be doing with people like Harold McCusker these days.