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 As everyone will know, the two main Unionist parties have withdrawn their candidates in favour of the former Chief Executive of Fermanagh District Council, Rodney Connor.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.

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