Fermanagh South Tyrone: Brexit focus only boosts Sinn Féin’s Gildernew
Constituency profile: DUP stands aside for UUP’s Elliott in ‘single issue’ election
Sinn Féin’s MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew says unionists have pledged to vote for her in upcoming UK election. File photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
In Fermanagh South Tyrone, the candidates know all too well that every vote really does count.
In 2010, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew defeated a united unionist candidate, the Independent, Rodney Connor, by a mere four votes in what was the closest result in the UK; in the two general elections since, the winning margin has been less than 1,000.
The score between Gildernew and her rival, Tom Elliott of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), sits at 1-1; Elliott defeated Gildernew by just over 500 votes in 2015, but she took the seat back in 2017 with a margin of 875.
This will be another closely-fought contest. The weight of unionism is behind Elliott; earlier this month the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, announced her party would stand aside in order to maximise his chances. Despite the new ground broken by the pacts negotiated elsewhere in Northern Ireland, in Fermanagh South Tyrone it was not unexpected.
Here, unionist pacts are the norm; it has been more than a decade since the DUP stood in a general election in this constituency. When Elliott won in 2015, he was the beneficiary of a similar arrangement, and this time around Foster – herself a Fermanagh woman and a one-time member of the UUP – underlined her support by accompanying Elliott as he handed in his nomination papers in Omagh.
For Elliott, the choice is clear: “The union takes precedence.” This has a particular resonance in the westernmost constituency in the United Kingdom, where – during the Troubles in particular – much of its Protestant population felt not just isolated, but disproportionately vulnerable. It was to this generation of voters Foster was speaking when she called on Sinn Féin, in the wake of the outcry over posters targeting John Finucane and his family in North Belfast, to condemn the attempted murder of her father, a policeman and farmer who was shot by the IRA on his farm in 1979.
Yet while the scars of the past have long marked the North’s elections, the political landscape is still adjusting to more recent fault lines. Gildernew is far from the only Sinn Féin candidate to judge this “the election of a generation”; she too is clear about the choice facing voters.
This is a “single issue” election, she says. “It’s all about Brexit.”
Here, Brexit matters. This is a large, rural area with by far the longest Border with the Republic of any of the North’s constituencies. In 2016, it had the highest turnout in Northern Ireland in the Brexit referendum, at 67.8 per cent; 58.6 per cent voted to remain in the EU.
These figures, then, would give the race to Gildernew over Elliott, a “soft Leaver” who believes that either remaining in the EU or leaving with no-deal Brexit would be better than the current withdrawal agreement.
There is no such complexity in Gildernew’s message; a vote for her is an “anti-Brexit vote” and she is already on record as saying that pro-Remain unionists – not least, farmers – will vote for her over Elliott in order to stay in the EU.
“People are looking very carefully at the constitutional issue and considering which union they want to be part of,” she says. Have unionists pledged their vote to her on the doorsteps? “Absolutely.”
The pair must be knocking on different doors. Elliott, himself a beef farmer, dismisses this. “Brexit is there, but it’s not the biggest issue.” People are talking to him about the health service, about hospital waiting lists, about abortion. He is opposed to its decriminalisation, which became law in Northern Ireland in October; because of his stance, he says, some nationalists have told him he will have their vote.
Some nationalists, too, will vote for the SDLP – its candidate is an Enniskillen councillor, Adam Gannon – but he is unlikely to subtract significantly from Gildernew’s total. Traditionally, Alliance has attracted a low vote in this constituency, though Matthew Beaumont could pull in a few votes from pro-Remain unionists unwilling – despite Gildernew’s confidence – to vote for Sinn Féin.
History teaches that the margin of victory here will be tight but, for all the close calls, that history is also firmly with Gildernew. Aside from the two years between 2015 and 2017, she has been the constituency’s MP since 2001; the changed context of Brexit will only boost her chances.
Matthew Beaumont (Alliance)
Tom Elliott (UUP)
Adam Gannon (SDLP)
Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Féin – outgoing MP)
Caroline Wheeler (Independent)
2017 Westminster election results