West Tyrone: battleground where voter apathy is the big enemy

DUP candidate likely to keep seat, while SF looking to return three candidates again

 Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt: The UUP is  the potential casualty in West Tyrone and could be without representation in one of the most rural constituencies in the North. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt: The UUP is the potential casualty in West Tyrone and could be without representation in one of the most rural constituencies in the North. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

 

Unless the Democratic Unionist vote collapses in West Tyrone, which is unlikely, veteran Tom Buchanan will retain the seat in the Stormont Assembly which he won last year on the ninth count after getting 4,650 first-preference votes.

Before the campaign began, the DUP considered running two candidates again, but ultimately decided against it. Now, local sources hint that Arlene Foster’s party is regretting its caution.

However, West Tyrone will be a battleground on March 2nd. Three Sinn Féin candidates have been returned election after election, with the rest split between the DUP, UUP and SDLP. Given that West Tyrone will have five MLAs afterwards, not six, someone is going to lose out.

Buchanan’s newspaper clipping file is slight, though there was a complaint recently about the “outrageously slow” pace of a planning application for a crematorium in Omagh.

Life in the Ulster Unionists, however, is anything but quiet. Last July, the party’s MLA in the constituency, Ross Hussey, became the subject of Sunday tabloids after it emerged that he had used an online “stranger sex” dating app and sent nude pictures of himself to a reporter.

Subsequently, Hussey resigned, saying later: “I went through hell and had my darkest days in July. I really was in the depths of despair.”

Newcomer

Alicia ClarkeChris SmythOmagh District Council

The daughter of a Church of Ireland minister, Clarke has liberal views on same-sex marriage and abortion – views that some in her party have privately described as “unhelpful” in recent days, even if they still hope she will reach the quota through transfers; but it could be a struggle.

The UUP’s strength in the constituency is centred around the county’s largest town, Omagh; but many there are concerned that Clarke will not do as well as her popular 58-year-old former police reservist predecessor.

Former Sinn Féin councillor Sorcha McAnespy, who quit the party last year citing claims of nepotism and misogyny within the ranks, is standing as an Independent candidate and will again face former colleagues: Michaela Boyle, Barry McElduff and Declan McAleer.

Boyle and McElduff are expected to sail through, just like last time, but it could be difficult for McAleer after it took 11 recounts to get him across the line previously. Despite McAnespy securing only 828 votes last year, she will still challenge McAleer.

Well respected

Sinn Féin has a firm base in West Tyrone, but whether or not it is strong enough to keep Daniel McCrossan from retaining his seat for the SDLP remains to be seen. The 27-year-old articulate honours law graduate may well top the poll again.

His selection, and the decision to run just one candidate, triggered ructions within the party last year. Several party officers and councillors resigned in protest. Two of them are now standing against him. Nevertheless, this time he is running alone.

Playing on the furore over the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme controversy, Independent Róisín McMackin from Beragh has vowed to put “people before pellets” by spending much of her time during the campaign demanding improvements to local autism services.

Criminalise homosexuality

Still, the Evangelical Christian did marginally better than Northern Ireland Conservatives’ Roger Lomas (44 votes last year) who will also give it another shot next month.

Barry Brown of Cista (Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol) is calling for the legalisation of the drug again and hopes to improve on last year’s result of 547 votes.

Traditional Unionist Voice is running for the first time here – former Democratic Unionist councillor Charlie Chittick. The 64-year-old spent nine years as a DUP representative on Omagh District Council. Now, he will be hoping to secure votes for the TUV in Castlederg, Donemana and Omagh.

Chittick’s decision to suddenly jump ship surprised many, not least within his former party, with some suggesting he may be about to settle old scores.

Prediction: Voter apathy is a big worry for candidates – last year the turnout dipped below 60 per cent for the first time (59.86 per cent), down from 64 per cent in 2011.

The indications are that Buchanan will retain a seat for the DUP and Sinn Féin will initially pick up two seats with Boyle and McElduff.

The battle for the last two remaining seats could be between McCrossan, Clarke and McAleer, with the SDLP and Sinn Féin scraping in, leaving the UUP as the potential casualty in West Tyrone and Mike Nesbitt’s party without representation in one of the most rural constituencies in the North.

Interestingly, the three unionist candidates will be listed in a row on the ballot paper – Buchanan, Chittick and Clarke – which could prove helpful in the booth when it comes to unionist transfers.

On such things can tight races be won, or lost.

Candidates

Stephen Donnelly (Alliance)

Thomas Buchanan (DUP)

Ciaran McClean (Green)

Daniel McCrossan (SDLP)

Michaela Boyle (SF)

Declan McAleer (SF)

Barry McElduff (SF)

Alicia Clarke (UUP)

Roger Lomas (C)

Barry Brown (Cista)

Charlie Chittick (TUV)

isín McMackin (Ind)

Corey French (Ind)

Susan-Anne White (Ind)

Sorcha McAnespy (Ind)