Nationalist vote wooed in a pincer movement
The mountainous, gorse-covered terrain of one of Westminster's youngest constituencies, five-year-old West Tyrone, has seen some of the fiercest violence of the past three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. Its graveyards are full of hundreds of policemen and UDR soldiers, IRA volunteers and many ordinary citizens who died at the hands of others.
The current MP, Ulster Unionist, Willie Thompson, 61, is one of the Good Friday agreement's most outspoken critics. A Methodist lay preacher with 30 years political experience, he faces no Unionist opponent and stands a good chance of keeping his seat.
But it is here that the province's two pro-agreement nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, will fight one of the bitterest electoral battles in their histories for the soul of northern nationalism. Both parties want a united Ireland, though the larger, more moderate has always strongly opposed violence. But Sinn Fein's electoral fortunes soared in the past decade, particularly since the advent of the peace process.
Sinn Fein's all-Ireland political ambitions are huge, and, ironically, the party brought in from the cold by SDLP leader John Hume is determined to repay the favour by eclipsing him, if not in this ballot, at the next. The looming election in the Irish Republic is also a major target.
Immediately after the election, all sides in are expected to engage in tough talks with the British and Irish governments on the major stum bling blocks still threatening the Good Friday agreement - paramilitary decommissioning, demilitarisation and policing.
Police reform is key for many nationalists, who have no confidence in the Protestant-dominated RUC, and neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein was happy with the government's police bill, which they feel unacceptably diluted Chris Patten's original proposals.
But while the SDLP, which has already negotiated substantial changes, appears ready to sign up to the new policing arrangements after the election, Sinn Fein is holding out for amending legislation.
Sinn Fein has two of Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster constituencies at present - Gerry Adams' West Belfast republican heartland and Martin McGuinness in Mid-Ulster - while the SDLP has three, all of which are likely to be held.
But West Tyrone is the nationalists' greatest hope for a gain - and both Sinn Fein and the SDLP are devoting huge energy and resources to what they see as a crunch contest in a critical election.
In Tyrone's county town, Omagh, where a dissident Real IRA bomb killed 29 people in August 1998, SDLP candidate and perennially elegant Stormont agriculture minister, Brid Rodgers, 66, greets shoppers. There is some gentle ribbing about her being the farmers' pin-up girl, but even the more taciturn rural types seem somewhat in awe of her, crossing the street to shake her hand and praising her authoritative handling of the foot and mouth crisis, imposing restrictions on local ports, despite contrary advice from London.
"I vote SDLP anyway but I think she has stood up for local farmers and in a rural constituency like this, that makes her popular," said a cattle farmer.
A fluent Irish speaker from Donegal, in the Irish Republic, Rodgers has a strong record of speaking up for nationalists, particularly in Portadown, Co Armagh, where residents are opposed to the loyalist Orange Order marching down the mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road.
She argues while there might have been a radical thrill to voting Sinn Fein a few years ago, nationalists were now siding with the SDLP and that she can capture the middle ground the more extreme party cannot.
Rodgers maintains nationalist voters recognise the SDLP's good performance in the power-sharing coalition government at Stormont and her ability to represent them on local issues.
"Sinn Fein have accused us of parachuting in a high profile candidate but their candidate, Pat Doherty, got wall-to-wall television coverage in 1997 because of the peace talks and he still came behind us."
Less than a mile away, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is kicking a football with some teenage lads on a housing estate as he canvasses with Doherty, a tough-talking Glaswegian with Donegal roots and party vice-president since 1988. The two men are obviously among friends as they stride purposefully through the streets, cuddling babies that have been brought out to the doorsteps as small boys run with scraps of paper to get Adams' autograph.
"Policing is the thing and the police here are always hassling certain people on this estate for no reason," claimed one young man. "Sinn Fein's the only party can do anything about it."
Adams also stresses his party's record at Stormont, calling on republicans to use this vote to register their disapproval of Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble's ban on its two ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun, attending cross-border meetings unless the IRA starts decommissioning.
Back in his office in Strabane, one of Northern Ireland's worst unemployment blackspots, Doherty, 55, chair of the Stormont economic committee and based in West Tyrone for five years, expounds his plans to bring jobs and infrastructure to a neglected region. An influential mem ber of Sinn Fein's peace process talks team, he denies claims that he is one of the IRA's seven-strong ruling army council, and expresses abhorrence of sectarianism from whatever quarter.
An SDLP poll found almost two-thirds of its voters wanted the party to sign up to the new police board and it says Sinn Fein's outright rejection is out of step with the electorate - a claim Doherty scathingly dismisses.
In West Tyrone, many voters are still making up their minds, but refreshingly for Northern Ireland, on bread-and-butter issues. "I'll vote SDLP or Sinn Fein, but it won't be so much what they can do on flags or policing but what they can do on health and childcare," said a community worker.
And an elderly woman summed it up: "I could go for either Rodgers or Doherty, they both seem nice, but there's still poverty where I live. I would honestly vote for the party that can get me a downstairs toilet."
A rural constituency that relies on tourism and agriculture. It has a mainly Catholic population and includes the town of Omagh where 29 people were killed in August 1998 after a bomb was planted by the Real IRA
Held by William Thompson, UUP
Candidates SDLP Brid Rodgers
SF Pat Doherty
UUP William Thompson
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