Wednesday, 28 April 2010

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.

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