Doherty (SF) 16,910 (38.9%)
Deeny (Ind) 11,905 (27.4%)
Buchanan (DUP) 7,742 (17.8%)
McMenamin (SDLP) 3,949 (9.1%)
Hussey (UUP) 2,981 (6.9%)
West Tyrone is similar in many ways to the neighbouring constituency of Mid Ulster. Indeed, it’s more like the pre-1997 Mid Ulster than the current Mid Ulster is. It’s a big sprawling rural area, but makes for a fairly sensible and discrete natural unit, taking up the local government districts of Omagh and Strabane. It’s not quite as village-centric as Mid Ulster, though – Omagh is quite a nice market town. Strabane, on the other hand, has a reputation that precedes it, having topped the UK unemployment tables for years on end, and more recently being a fixture in the UK “Crap Towns” list. This does a slight disservice to Strabane, which isn’t nearly as unpleasant as legend would have it, but has suffered for a long time from small-town poverty and, during the Troubles, of being cut off from its Donegal hinterland. Strabane is also, fact fans, the birthplace of the late Brian Ó Nualláin, alias Myles na gCopaleen alias Flann O’Brien, which may explain a thing or two about Myles’ humour.
The community background according to the 2001 census was 68% Catholic to 31% Protestant, and as in Mid Ulster you have to factor in the geographical patchwork here. Strabane town, for instance, is almost exclusively Catholic, though there are Prods up the road in Sion Mills and more in the villages out towards Limavady. Castlederg used to be about 50/50, but has been trending Catholic more recently; Omagh town is theoretically mixed, although less so on the micro level. And of course, there are lots and lots of wee villages like Fintona and Beragh and Sixmilecross and Carrickmore, often associated strongly with one side or the other.
For a constituency only formed in 1997, West Tyrone has thrown up two quirky results in three elections. In the first one, the constituency actually went unionist as the UUP’s Willie Thompson polled 35% to 32% for the SDLP and 31% for Sinn Féin. But the seat was clearly a loaner, and in 2001 it was clearly going to whichever nationalist party could pull ahead – but which one? The SDLP threw the kitchen sink at West Tyrone, drafting in party veteran Bríd Rodgers from Upper Bann to carry their flag, with Alex Attwood incautiously telling reporters that West Tyrone was the SDLP’s Stalingrad, the decisive battle that would turn back the Provo tide. Some hacks actually swallowed this, failing to notice little signs like the 200 youthful SF canvassers pounding the streets of Omagh on the eve of poll. In the event, it should not have come as a surprise that Pat Doherty won quite easily.
After that, though, you had the Deeny Effect. In the 2003 Stormont election, the surprise of the campaign was local GP Kieran Deeny, running on the sole issue of saving the Omagh hospital, topping the poll and knocking out one of the SDLP’s two seats in the process. Deeny took votes from all over the place, notably the SDLP and UUP, and he repeated this by taking second place with 27% in the 2005 Westminster election, while the SDLP and UUP plunged into single figures. Deeny also retained his Assembly seat in 2007.
Dr Deeny, however, is not running this time, and it’ll be fascinating to see where his vote goes. If you compare the Westminster result in 2005 with that of the simultaneous local election, you see the DUP underperforming at Westminster by 500 and SF by 1800, but the UUP by 2800 (nearly half their vote) and the SDLP by a whopping 3700 (nearly half their vote). That big chunk of UUP and SDLP votes might be expected to migrate back to their original parties, but not all of them. The upward trend for SF and the DUP in West Tyrone has been braked, but not stopped, by the Deeny Effect; the decline of the SDLP and UUP exaggerated.
Who will win outright, and who will win on either side, are fairly predictable then. As so often, we’ll be looking at the percentages to see if there’s any message for next year’s Assembly and local government elections. The last Stormont election saw SF gaining a third seat at the SDLP’s expense, the DUP gaining a second at the UUP’s expense, and Deeny retaining his. Now, the SDLP actually had a quota in 2007, but lost their seat due to rural fiefdom politics of the sort that’s too common in the SDLP, which led them into a lunatic strategy of having three candidates chasing what was always going to be a single seat; their transfers leaked badly, and Deeny picked up lots of transfers to put him over the line. This is an opportunity for Joe Byrne to stake his claim to being the sole (or at least lead) candidate. SF had a comfortable three quotas, and would probably need their vote to be up around the 50% mark before they think of adding a fourth candidate (though more likely as a sweeper than as a seat prospect). We also don’t know yet whether Deeny fancies running again.
On the other side of the fence, the DUP’s Tom Buchanan has been putting out leaflets informing the broad masses that in the 2009 Assembly election the DUP took 70% of the unionist vote. Well, that success is not surprising as nobody else knew there was an Assembly election in 2009. But in 2007, the DUP did indeed achieve that, and monopolised unionist representation. They achieved that by outpolling the UUP by better than two to one, and by having fairly tight vote management. But if Ross Hussey can achieve a bit of a swing back to UCUNF, he should be in with a shout next year.
West Tyrone is usually very barren territory for Alliance, who will do well not to come dead last. And there’s also the independent candidacy of Ciarán McClean, whose previous electoral outing was as a Democratic Left (remember them?) candidate in the 1996 Forum election. Ciarán has been involved a bit in Labour politics in the interim, and is running a campaign around the quarrying issue that will aim to tap into something of the Deeny vote. More realistically, there are probably a few hundred people in West Tyrone of Labour or Workers Party sympathies, who might be attracted to a left candidate, had Ciarán run as such. It would really just be a matter of putting down a marker, but I expect that’s all Ciarán will be doing in any case.