Theme of reconciliation emerges as West Tyrone faces byelection

Victims’ candidate mooted following resignation of Sinn Féin MP over video

Alan Black, sole survivor of a sectarian massacre of 10 Protestant workmen in 1976 near Kingsmill, Co Armagh, was widely praised following an interview on RTÉ radio. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Alan Black, sole survivor of a sectarian massacre of 10 Protestant workmen in 1976 near Kingsmill, Co Armagh, was widely praised following an interview on RTÉ radio. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

In West Tyrone, voters are facing their fifth trip to the polls in less than two years.

Like the rest of Northern Ireland, they’ve become somewhat used to unexpected elections, casting their votes in a snap Assembly election in March 2017, and in a UK general election in June.

The victor on that occasion, Sinn Féin’s Barry McElduff, resigned on Monday following widespread condemnation over a controversial Twitter post in which he shared the video of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the 42nd anniversary of the massacre of the same name, in which 10 Protestant workmen died.

Mr McElduff later apologised, and said “the deep and unnecessary hurt this video caused the victims of Kingsmill is my greatest regret”.

His ballot-weary former constituents now face a byelection to choose his replacement in a political landscape which has been altered not just by the tweet but also by the reaction to it.

The praise for Alan Black – the only survivor of Kingsmill – following his moving interview on RTÉ radio, and the similar welcome for a BBC interview by Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd – who said the Kingsmill massacre was sectarian, and that the killings were “wrong” and “shameful” – are symptomatic of the renewed spotlight that has fallen on victims and survivors of the Troubles.

Non-partisan candidate

Amid this has come the call by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Robin Swann, for a “non-partisan candidate who will be a voice for victims to contest this seat against Sinn Féin”.

Many names have been suggested, including Sharon Gault, wife of Stephen Gault, whose father was killed in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987. Kevin Skelton, whose wife Mena was killed in the 1998 Omagh bomb, has said he would “love to” stand.

Also mooted is Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was also among the Omagh victims. While personally unsure if he could give the commitment, he believes the prospect is worth of a victims’ candidate is worth exploring.

“It would show a sea change in politics in the North,” he says.

“What happens is we meet with politicians and they’re all tea and sympathy but the decisions are made behind closed doors, and very often the priorities change.

“If there was a victims’ representative who was there when the doors were closed and who could fight the corner of the victims it would be a breath of fresh air in politics and a great gesture.”

“Let’s open the dialogue and see if the politicians jump into their usual trenches and back their own man or woman.

“I’m asking them to make a leap of faith. Whether they’re prepared to make it is another thing.”

West Tyrone is a Sinn Féin heartland, a predominantly nationalist constituency in the west of Northern Ireland with a two-thirds Catholic majority which elected McElduff in June 2017 with a majority of almost 11,000 votes, or just over 50 per cent,

It is also a Border county, with a long boundary with Donegal and significant proportion of cross-Border workers, particularly in the Strabane-Lifford area, which returned a strong Remain vote in the Brexit referendum – another divisive issue for any potential cross-party candidate.

Some argue that there is precedent in West Tyrone – in the 2003 Assembly election Independent candidate Kieran Deeny, who was campaigning for the retention of Omagh hospital, topped the poll, yet his success failed to translate to election to Westminster two years later, when he was defeated by Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty.

Where united unionist candidates have stood in neighbouring constituencies they have on both occasions failed to unseat the Sinn Féin candidate

Even without the star potential of Tyrone GAA legend Peter Canavan, who has ruled himself out of the running, Sinn Féin remains the party to beat in West Tyrone.

Sinn Féin meeting

Members are to meet this week to discuss names ahead of a selection convention in the constituency, but it appears likely the candidate will come from within the party ranks.

The only alternative, according to Patsy Kelly, former SDLP and now Independent councillor from Strabane, who says he has been approached about running, is an agreed candidate backed by both unionists and the SDLP.

“An agreed candidate might topple Sinn Féin. The SDLP don’t have a chance of taking the seat and I don’t think any other unionist does, so does it go to somebody who’s independent and will represent everyone?

“The UUP, who suggested this, have done their maths and realised it’s a seat they can’t win, so the SDLP really have to look in the mirror and ask themselves: Can we win this?”

This may be the sticking point. Daniel McCrossan, the single SDLP MLA in West Tyrone, has stood in the last two Westminster elections, and says that as things stand the SDLP intends to put forward a candidate.

“There’s been all sorts of speculation around this, and by no means has there been any discussion to date.

“We are willing to listen to any discussion around it, but at the minute the SDLP are ready and prepared to face the election.”

Without the SDLP’s support – and the more than 5,600 votes cast for Mr McCrossan in the last election – an agreed candidate would appear to have no chance of success.

“Even if somebody got every single other vote apart from the ones Barry McElduff got, they still wouldn’t be successful because he got more than 50 per cent of the vote,” says Sorcha McAnespy.

An Independent councillor in Omagh, she left Sinn Féin in 2016 over claims of nepotism and misogyny and is now Fianna Fáil’s Northern representative.

She has also been suggested as a potential candidate, and while the byelection will be discussed by Fianna Fáil this week, she feels the time is not yet right for them to stand for election in the North.

“We’ve had a number of very polarised elections and I would love to see someone who could promote reconciliation.

“If this particular debacle does nothing else what it does is it reinforces the need to find closure and to help the families and victims on all sides.”

It remains to be seen if this will be the legacy of West Tyrone’s latest, and least expected, election.