West Tyrone: Sinn Féin and DUP standing by if SDLP implodes
More party infighting could result in Daniel McCrossan not holding party seat
The Northern Ireland Assembly election will take place on Thursday, May 5th. Each of the 18 constituencies – including West Tyrone – will elect six Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
What is it about the SDLP and West Tyrone?
When it comes to Assembly elections in this constituency it seems the party either opts for the self-destruct button, or decides, as Brendan Behan would say, that the first item on the agenda must be the split.
Here the expectation would have been that the status quo would prevail; that Sinn Féin would take three seats and the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP – with its bright new young candidate Daniel McCrossan – would win one seat each.
Now, though, Sinn Féin – which is fielding four candidates – is sniffing blood, while the DUP is quietly hoping that the vagaries of the proportional representation system might permit it to sneak an extra seat.
SDLP strategists must have thought they were on to a sure thing with 27-year Mr McCrossan, an articulate honours law graduate from Liverpool John Moores University. At the end of December, longstanding servant of the SDLP Joe Byrne stood down as the party’s MLA so that Mr McCrossan could be co-opted.
That was to allow him to get used to the business of Stormont and to raise his profile ahead of this election. In 2015, he stood as the SDLP’s candidate and polled 6,444 votes, a return if replicated on May 5th would guarantee him a seat.
Mr McCrossan was one of the youngbloods that former SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell brought into the party. It was part of the regeneration process that he tried to develop.
But Mr McCrossan’s selection and the decision to run just one candidate triggered ructions within the party. Several party officers and councillors resigned from the SDLP in protest. Two of those councillors, Dr Josephine Deehan and Patsy Kelly, then decided to run as independents.
There were complaints about a lack of female candidates, of “cronyism”, of young “career politicians” coming in to gazump some of the oldguard, of the new leadership “losing touch” with the SDLP base in West Tyrone.
There were also mutterings that the two main towns Omagh and Strabane in the constituency weren’t properly represented – Mr McCrossan is from the rural village of Victoria Bridge which is between the two towns.
The new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood rejected the charges and stood by his “fantastic” candidate.
All this is nothing unusual for the SDLP in West Tyrone. In the first post-Belfast Agreement Assembly elections in 1998 it won two seats, but thereafter it has been beset with bad organisation and internecine fighting.
Somehow, in 2007, it failed to win a seat despite its two candidates – Dr Deehan and Eugene McMenamin – returning more than a full quota. In 2011, Joe Byrne managed to win a seat for the party, notwithstanding that one of his opponents was Mr McMenamin, who, after yet another internal row, ran as an independent.
Certainly there is great interest in politics in West Tyrone. A total of 18 candidates are standing, making it – with East Belfast, South Belfast and North Belfast – the most competitive of the North’s 18 six-seater constituencies.
West Tyrone factfile
How the constituency compares
Level: high. Rank: 4 of 18
Levels of poor health
Level: high. Rank: 5 of 18
Some interesting candidates too. They include Evangelical Christian Susan-Anne White, who, when she stood in last year’s Westminster election, polling 166 votes, said if she could she would outlaw rock bands and adultery and recriminalise homosexuality, and Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol candidate Barry Brown, who also ran in 2015 winning 528 votes.
Sinn Féin has a firm grip on West Tyrone and should safely return three candidates. The Ulster Unionist Party’s outgoing MLA Ross Hussey – based on the Westminster and 2014 local government elections – also should be elected. And the DUP should be guaranteed at least one seat.
The question thereafter is, will Mr McCrossan win a seat for the SDLP, or will all the infighting benefit Sinn Féin or the DUP, or even one of the two former SDLP councillors – Dr Deehan or Mr Kelly – who are running as independents?
The answer will depend on the level of SDLP disarray within West Tyrone. The DUP again is running its two candidates from 2011, outgoing MLA Thomas Buchanan and Allan Bresland, who was close to winning a second seat for the party five years ago. Sinn Féin supporters transfer in a very disciplined manner and equally it has a chance of taking a fourth seat if the SDLP totally implodes.
In the end, though, Mr McCrossan may just about come through.
So, it might be the same again:
Sinn Féin (3); DUP (1); UUP (1); SDLP (1).
Michaela Boyle (Sinn Féin)
Allan Bresland (DUP)
Barry Brown (Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol)
Thomas Buchanan (DUP)
Josephine Anne Deehan (Ind)
Stephen Donnelly (Alliance Party)
Corey French (Ind)
Ross Hussey (UUP)
Patsy Kelly (Ind)
Roger Lomas (Conservatives)
Declan McAleer (Sinn Féin)
Laura McAnea (Animal Welfare Party)
Sorcha McAnespy (Ind)
Ciaran McClean (Green Party)
Daniel McCrossan (SDLP)
Grace McDermott (Sinn Féin)
Barry McElduff (Sinn Féin)
Susan-Anne White (Ind)