Thursday, 29 April 2010

Profile Number 5 - Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Right, I'll be honest - there may be a tiny little bit more naked partisan politics at work here, ironically for a candidate who isn't even an official Conservative and Unionist. As everyone will know, the two main Unionist parties have withdrawn their candidates in favour of the former Chief Executive of Fermanagh District Council, Rodney Connor. Connor is running as an Independent and has the wholehearted support of the Unionist establishment in the constituency, not to mention the fervent good wishes of every Unionist in Northern Ireland.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone has existed in various incarnations since it was created in 1950, with the division of the old two member Fermanagh and Tyrone constituency into Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Mid-Ulster. Like Mid-Ulster, it quickly proved to be a marginal seat, but was at first won by Nationalists, including an imprisoned IRA member standing on the Sinn Fein ticket in 1955. However, the Unionists of the day were successful in having Phil Clarke unseated and their candidate declared elected instead. Unionists held the seat until 1970, when they lost to Frank McManus, who himself lost to the late Harry West, the then UUP leader, in February 1974. West himself lost to Independent Nationalist unity candidate Frank Maguire in that year's second General Election. (Maguire later gained some notoriety in 1979 when he went to Westminster for the vote of no confidence in James Callaghan's government, but abstained). He died suddenly in 1981, which led to the election of Bobby Sands in the subsequent by-election. After Owen Carron won the seat in yet another by-election, Ken Maginnis won the seat back for Unionism in 1983, and hung on until retirement in 2001. He polled over 50% of the vote in 1997. The seat in its current form exists since the 1995 boundary review, when it lost the Coalisland and Donaghmore area to the new Mid-Ulster.

What's been happening since 2001 is well known; the DUP backed an Independent candidate in 2001 and the Shinners kept a polling station open after 10pm, all of which contributed to Michelle Gildernew sneaking the seat by a mere 53 votes. The split in the Unionist vote contributed to an easy victory for Gildernew in 2005, but this time, it's not so simple. Gildernew is considerably more prominent now than she was in 2001 (being Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development does no harm at all) but victory is by no means assured. There is every possibility, indeed it's quite likely, that FST will have the highest turnout of any constituency in the United Kingdom. It will be a two horse race, but if the Unionist community down there have any sense, they know what they have to do. Sinn Fein are throwing everything at this, so a Connor victory is by no means a shoo in either, but I do think it can be done. The SDLP are in gentle decline here - Fearghal McKinney was a good journalist in his day, and is undoubtedly an asset for the SDLP, but he's in completely the wrong constituency. He's not helped by Sinn Fein's unilateral withdrawal in Belfast South either - a blind man on a galloping horse, to coin a phrase, can see why the Shinners pulled Maskey; a seat they couldn't possibly win, an uncertain Assembly seat, and the added benefit of completely shafting the SDLP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and possibly in other constituencies, such as Belfast North, South Down and Foyle; the ''ripple effect'' of Nationalist goodwill. Mind you, Gildernew needs the vast, vast majority of Nationalists to vote for her in order to pull her home - one commentator on Slugger estimated she needed 90% of all Nationalist voters in FST to do it, which is more than the 85% of Nationalists who voted for Sinn Fein in Belfast West at the 2007 Assembly elections when they hauled 5 of the 6 seats.

Rounding off the ticket, apart from Fearghal McKinney himself (who, you might reasonably ask, will defect from UTV to the DUP, SF and Alliance? Anyone for the TUV?) is Alliance candidate Vasundhara Kamble. Alliance actually appear to have a branch in the constituency, unlike most western areas. Mind you, that won't stop Ms Kamble polling very poorly. Another Independent is running, a chap named John Stevenson, who appears to be fighting on an anti-cuts and job losses ticket. If ever the phrase ''one to watch'' applied anywhere, it's Fermanagh and South Tyrone this time out. Needless to say, this blog wholeheartedly supports Rodney Connor.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Profile Number 4 - West Tyrone

Justify Full
West Tyrone is the newest constituency, being created at the 1995 boundary review. Consisting of the entire districts of Omagh and Strabane, it was taken almost entirely from the old Mid-Ulster, then still represented by William McCrea. A little bit of Strabane District was taken from the old Foyle. The seat had a significant Nationalist majority, but was won against the odds by William Thompson (UUP) at the 1997 General Election, after the SDLP and Sinn Fein polled a similar number of votes each. As an aside, Thompson had been the last UUP candidate to contest the old Mid-Ulster back in 1983, when he polled poorly against McCrea. Thompson was avowedly anti-Belfast Agreement after 1998 and proved a major thorn in David Trimble's side. In 2001, despite being the sole Unionist candidate, his vote actually went down by about 1,500 and he was defeated by then Sinn Fein Vice-President Pat Doherty, who holds the seat still. The SDLP were roundly humiliated on that occasion, coming third in a three horse race after foolishly talking up their chances. At the 2003 Assembly election, West Tyrone produced a major shock by electeing Independent candidate Dr Kieran Deeny on the first count (Deeny was a single issue candidate, fighting to keep Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh open; he failed). In 2005, Deeny came second to Doherty, polling almost 12,000 votes. On that occasion, the UUP were utterly destroyed in the constituency, coming last in the pack and polling fewer than 3,000 votes. The DUP, in the form of Thomas Buchanan MLA, outpolled us considerably. In 2007, things reached a nadir, when we lost our Assembly seat here to the DUP's second candidate. The SDLP also lost their Assembly seat here, but then they ran a masterclass on how not to fight a PR-STV election; three candidates fighting for one seat and terrible balancing meant they actually polled over a quota of first preferences but failed to hold their seat, losing to Sinn Fein's third candidate.

Since then though, the West Tyrone UUP Association has been reinvigorated. Despite losing their MLA, they've kept the office in Omagh open, produce a regular newsletter and hold surgeries across the constituency. They deserve real credit for this, and I often wonder how many people across the party are aware of the massive effort required on the part of many people in the constituency? This time out, we are running former RUC officer and Omagh councillor Ross Hussey, obviously with an eye to regaining the Assembly seat. Hussey is a good guy who deserves to do very well- he came to national attention in 2009, when a mocked up election leaflet playing on his alleged resemblance to Family Guy character Peter Griffin was publicised. He will face off against the fairly low-profile Pat Doherty, the now ex-Sinn Fein Vice President. Hussey's Unionist competition will come from his fellow Omagh councillor and DUP MLA since 2003, Thomas Buchanan. The TUV are not running here. The SDLP, obviously without an MLA here as well and with a quickly declining voter base, are running former councillor and MLA Joe Byrne. Byrne was the SDLP candidate narrowly defeated by Thompson in 1997. Alliance, somewhat unusually, are running a candidate with some local roots in this far from key constituency for them, a chap named Michael Bower, the former Chair of Young Alliance. He was educated in Omagh and lived in the town for a few years. The great question in West Tyrone is where will Kieran Deeny's 11,000+ votes from 2005 go to? Many of them were undoubtedly from the SDLP and the Unionist parties, so it will be interesting to see if they return to their natural 'homes.'

Profile Number 3 - Mid-Ulster

Mid-Ulster is, regrettably, a constituency where the result isn't really in doubt; our deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, will walk it. The seat he first gained from William McCrea back in 1997 on a majority of under 2,000 has become Sinn Fein's second safest, with a majority of just under 11,000 in 2005. It wasn't always thus - created in 1950, the seat has a chequered electoral history, being won first by Nationalist candidates, then after the election of Tom Mitchell (an imprisoned IRA man) in 1955, was handed to the defeated Unionist, Charles Beattie, once it was decided that Mitchell, being a convicted terrorist serving a prison sentence, technically wasn't eligible. Beattie was himself declared ineligible shortly afterwards, as he held an office of profit under the Crown. The Unionists, in the form of George Forrest, held the seat in the by-election. He died in 1968, and the ensuing by-election was won by Bernadette Devlin (then the youngest MP in the Commons), who was then defeated in 1974 by the late John Dunlop, who retired in 1983. The seat was won that year by William McCrea, who defeated Danny Morrison, the then Vice President of Sinn Fein, by only 78 votes. McCrea of course held on until 1997.

The constituency McCrea represented for 14 years is very different to the one McGuinness doesn't represent now. Most of the old Mid-Ulster is now West Tyrone, and the new Mid-Ulster includes all of Magherafelt District (the bulk of which was in the old East Londonderry), all of Cookstown District (which was in the old Mid-Ulster) and the Torrent DEA of Dungannon Borough Council (which was in the old Fermanagh and South Tyrone). The 1995 boundary review created a mainly Nationalist constituency which any Unionist would find difficult to win, and so it proved. You have to feel sorry for the SDLP though, who must have thought they were in with a decent chance of winning in 1997 (at least until McGuinness came along), having considerably outperformed Sinn Fein in the old Mid-Ulster in 1987 and 1992...

I have no doubt that Martin McGuinness will be declared re-elected on 7th May as MP for Mid-Ulster. Given the fragmentation of the Unionist vote, there is a decent chance that the SDLP could take second place, the preserve of the DUP since 1997. Never a strong UUP constituency, our party didn't contest the seat at Westminster level for 22 years until 2005, when Billy Armstrong MLA polled just under 11% of the vote. The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists are running this time though, with Sandra Overend carrying the flag. Sandra is one of four female candidates the alliance is running, and amongst other things, is the party's Woman's Officer. Regrettably, she won't win, but she's a strong candidate and should poll well. The DUP are running Ian McCrea MLA for the third time in a Westminster poll. McCrea has been elected to the Assembly since the last Westminster election, when he outpolled Armstrong. It remains to be seen whether or not the TUV will harm McCrea significantly; they are running Walter Millar, the Chair of their Mid-Ulster branch (anecdotally, the largest constituency membership that party has). Millar is a former DUP member of Cookstown District Council and fought the 2007 Assembly elections on the UK Unionist Party ticket, when he pulled in that party's third best performance (1,210 1st preferences). The SDLP are running Cookstown councillor Tony Quinn (MLA and newly elected deputy leader Patsy McGlone presumably having decided to concentrate on the Assembly.) Quinn, as I say, may or may not take second place on a fragmented Unionist vote, but he won't seriously challenge McGuinness. Alliance are running in Westminster poll in Mid-Ulster for the first time since 1997, when they polled 460 votes. Ian Butler is a Fermanagh man who spent most of his working life in England. He'll be doing very well indeed to poll half that.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Private Sector

Another post on David Cameron's comments on Newsnight on Friday. I'll quite probably be back here over the past few days, but an answer to Jeffrey Donaldson's remarks on the Politics Show earlier today that those of us who plan to vote Conservative and Unionist on 6th May will be voting for funding cuts - I'll be voting for sensible efficiencies. Our public sector is bloated and I for one am unhappy with a massive, Soviet-style state economy. Only the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists are determined (and more importantly, will have the influence) to get Northern Ireland's private sector up and running. Watch the debate between Donaldson and Mike Nesbitt, who says it much better than I ever could...

Profile Number 2 - East Londonderry

Working my way around Northern Ireland in a semi-clockwise direction with the aim of finishing with North Antrim, we arrive at East Londonderry, primarily Unionist in political sentiment and consisting of the entire boroughs of Coleraine and Limavady, as well as two rural wards from Derry City Council (Banagher and Claudy), which have only just been attached to the constituency - their addition should do the SDLP vote in the area no harm. Formed in 1983 from the old Londonderry constituency, the seat was held by William Ross (UUP) until 2001, when he was defeated by Gregory Campbell - I well remember the comment at the time that Campbell's victory ironically meant things might get a tiny bit easier for David Trimble, as Ross was one of his most vocal opponents. East Londonderry formerly included most of Magherafelt District as well, but that transferred to Mid-Ulster in the 1995 boundary review.

I've always been a fan of East Londonderry; it's an absolutely beautiful area and Coleraine in particular is a wonderful little town where I've spent quite a bit of time. Gregory Campbell, the incumbent MP, has topped the poll at every Assembly election here since 1998 and wrested the seat from William Ross in 2001 by just over 2,000 votes, which increased to 7,700 in 2005. He remains a member of Derry City Council, and will be aiming for his third term in Westminster. David McClarty MLA has decided to run on this occasion and the Ulster Conservative and Unionist banner will be carried by Lesley Macaulay, a first time candidate with a strong background in community work in the area; Lesley is one of four female candidates we're running this time out. The Unionist fold is rounded off by the former MP, William Ross, who after a lifetime of UUP membership, joined with Jim Allister on the formation of the TUV and is currently that party's President. Ross was an MP for 27 years (he had previously been MP for Londonderry from 1974 until 1983, when he assumed the redrawn constituency). He is unlikely to win the seat, but has the capacity to poll well.

Nationalism is represented by the SDLP's Cllr Thomas Conway, a young farmer from the new wards in the constituency; he is a member of Derry City Council. Limavady councillor (and current Mayor) Cathal Hassan will fight the seat for Sinn Féin, and the ballot paper is rounded off by Alliance Coleraine councillor (and former police officer) Barney Fitzpatrick. Interesting to note that even Sinn Féin are slowly adopting a policy of not double jobbing and have opted not to run their MLA here, Billy Leonard.

It's the Economy, Stupid

Not a blog post per sé, but please see below an official statement from the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists campaign in relation to comments made by David Cameron on Newsnight on Friday. He's absolutely right; our public sector is ridiculously bloated - this is why we'll cut corporation tax and make Northern Ireland an enterprise zone...

Northern Ireland deserves better than being on window-ledge of UK economy
Conservatives and Unionists Newry & Armagh candidate Danny Kennedy has strongly endorsed David Cameron's call for action to grow the private sector in Northern Ireland and other regional economies across the United Kingdom.
Danny Kennedy said, "We unreservedly welcome David Cameron's commitment to grow the private sector in Northern Ireland. This is an economic imperative. Other political parties and leading economists have said this time and again. And it is the central objective of the devolved Executive's Programme for Government.
"We will not take lectures on this matter from a Labour government that declares itself 'neutral' on the matter of the Union, which has presided over the worst recession since the 1930s and which has created the largest ever peacetime deficit in British history. This government has absolutely zero moral authority on economic matters.
"Unlike others, however, Conservatives and Unionists will not merely talk about growing the private sector. A Conservative and Unionist government will be committed to delivering. By stopping Labour's job tax (Brown's planned rise in National Insurance), reducing corporation tax across the UK, bringing forward plans for the mechanism to reduce corporation tax further in Northern Ireland, and exempting from National Insurance the first 10 new employees in new companies during the first 2 years of a Conservative and Unionist government, we will get the United Kingdom working again, unleashing the spirit of enterprise that creates jobs and encourages innovation. This includes Northern Ireland. Unlike others, we are not prepared to see Northern Ireland relegated to the window-ledge of the UK economy.
"David Cameron has set an ambitious goal for a Conservative and Unionist government - to see the economies of Northern Ireland and other regions, such as the north-east of England, flourishing as the private sector grows. This ambition is shared by the people of Northern Ireland, who want to see jobs, opportunity and enterprise in this part of the United Kingdom. This is the agenda which the people of Northern Ireland can support on 6th May by voting Conservatives and Unionists"

Friday, 23 April 2010

Profile Number 1 - Foyle

In a hackneyed move, I'm going to start pulling together some brief constituency profiles (because no-one's ever done that before...). Hope you enjoy...first up is Foyle.

Foyle was created in 1983, when it was carved out of the old Londonderry constituency. The SDLP have been dominant here since then, with that party winning every election at every level here. Sitting MP and former SDLP leader Mark Durkan is defending his seat. He faces a very strong challenge from Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson (Mitchel McLaughlin MLA having cleared off to South Antrim), but should just pull it off, albeit helped along by Unionist tactical votes. Foyle comprises most of Derry City Council, save two wards which have been transferred to East Londonderry. That in itself won't do Durkan any favours, as both wards would have been fairly SDLP-friendly. For obvious reasons, the constituency is named Foyle to avoid having to choose any variation of Londonderry or Derry.

The Unionist cause is being represented by Cllr Dr David Harding, a Scottish born vet (and Coleraine councillor) fighting the seat for the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists and Ald. Maurice Devenney, the DUP candidate, who is a farmer from just outside the city. He replaces William Hay MLA, the perennial DUP candidate in this part of the world, who can't run, given his position as Speaker of the Assembly. Electoral veteran Eamonn McCann is also in the mix, having been around in north-western politics since before the beginning of time, or so it seems. He has always pulled in a relatively sturdy vote, but has never been elected. Interestingly, he is running on the ''People Before Profit'' ticket, his old bandwagon of Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA), under which he fought the 2003 Assembly and 2005 General and Local Government elections in this constituency, appearing to have died the death. Alliance are running a chap named Keith McGrellis, who must be favourite to pick up the booby prize. Mind you, Alliance were strong in Londonderry once upon a time, with a number of representatives on the City Council.