Fermanagh-South Tyrone: Can UUP incumbent keep Sinn Féin out?
Tom Elliott was a surprise victor in 2015, but Michelle Gildernew should have the edge
Election posters for Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin and Tom Elliott of the UUP. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
British prime minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap Westminster election was not received too graciously by Tom Elliott, who lives in Ballinamallard, Co Fermanagh.
Mr Elliott, the representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Danny Kinahan in South Antrim are the Ulster Unionist Party’s two outgoing MPs seeking to be returned to Westminster.
They made history two years ago by finally regaining UUP representation in the House of Commons after five years without a seat.
Both are under pressure in this campaign – Mr Kinahan from the DUP’s Paul Girvan, Mr Elliott from Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew. The Fermanagh man probably faces the hardest task in holding his seat.
“We could have done with Westminster running its full [five-year] term. It would have given Danny and I a better opportunity to develop our niche,” he says.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a constituency where the margins are tight and the turnouts are big. This is where IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands won a seat in 1981. Here, memories of the Troubles run deep and republican-unionist rivalry is fiercely competitive.
That said, this campaign has been quite civilised. “No, there have been no problems on the canvasses; we respect each other in that sense,” says Mr Elliott of his chief adversary and her campaign teams.
Ms Gildernew, a Sinn Féin former minister, is from Dungannon, Co Tyrone. She first took the constituency in 2001 by a margin of 53 votes. In 2010 she was four votes ahead of agreed unionist candidate Rodney Connor, and, after the courts examined the result, her winning majority was reduced to a single vote.
Sinn Féin was jolted by the result two years ago, when Mr Elliott, against the odds, took the seat with 530 votes to spare. There was a certain degree of complacency about the Sinn Féin campaign in 2015, but there is none now.
Ms Gildernew was happy that Theresa May brought the election forward, giving her a great opportunity to be once more returned as the abstentionist MP for the area.
The Assembly result of last March provides interesting stats on how this election might unfold.
In the five-seater constituency, Sinn Féin took three seats, while the DUP and UUP won one each. Sinn Féin won a total of 22,000 votes, while the unionist candidates – from the DUP, UUP, Traditional Unionist Voice and Conservative parties – won 22,460.
Mr Elliott is the sole unionist candidate, and if all those votes go to him, he has a chance. But for both Ms Gildernew and Mr Elliott, a key issue is what will happen the SDLP vote?
Richie McPhillips, with 5,134 votes, lost his SDLP Assembly seat in March. The question is: will those votes go to the current SDLP candidate, Mary Garrity – a post office manager from Trillick, Co Fermanagh – or will a significant amount transfer to Ms Gildernew?
The answer may lie in the last three Assembly elections, when the SDLP vote was between 4,000 and 5,100 votes. In the Westminster election of 2015, its vote slipped to 2,700. It would seem to indicate that some of the SDLP vote went to Ms Gildernew. Therefore the SDLP woman could be critical in determining who wins, the Fermanagh man or the south Tyrone woman.
Some unionists and commentators have sought to depict Ms Garrity as a “paper candidate”, but that is hardly the case when she is the chairwoman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. Mr Elliott acknowledges that she is a “good candidate”, but adds that “the difficulty is that she has not had a huge amount of exposure to allow people recognise how capable she is”.
Ms Gildernew appears to have the advantage in this constituency, where 58 per cent of the population are from a Catholic background and 39 per cent from a Protestant background.
But, then again, Mr Elliott was written off two years ago.
It should be very close at the finish, but Ms Gildernew could come through.
UUP – Tom Elliott
Sinn Féin – Michelle Gildernew
SDLP – Mary Garrity
Alliance – Noreen Campbell
Greens – Tanya Jones
Prediction: Michelle Gildernew