Gildernew (SF) 18,638 (38.2%)
Foster (DUP) 14,056 (28.8%)
Elliott (UUP) 8,869 (18.2%)
Gallagher (SDLP) 7,230 (14.8%)
OK, we’re on the home straight now, and let’s just take a breathless rush through the constituency that’s impossible to call – all we know is that the turnout will be high and the result tight.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a big sprawling constituency making up the southwestern corner of the north. It includes the whole of Fermanagh district, and most of Dungannon district (minus the Coalisland area). The biggest urban centre is Enniskillen with a population of around 13,000, while Dungannon has about 10,000. Otherwise, it’s very rural, with lots of little villages sitting in some genuinely beautiful countryside – Lough Erne is justly a popular tourist destination.
The sectarian breakdown is 55.6% Catholic to 43.0% Protestant as of the 2001 census, although the sectarian age pyramid would make the actual electorate slightly more even. There are some very Catholic villages like Roslea and Belleek around the border; some very Protestant areas like Lisbellaw and Ballinamallard in northern and central Fermanagh; and generally you find a lot of the usual west-of-the-Bann patchwork, where if you drive through the area you’ll find a strongly republican village followed by a strongly loyalist village et cetera. One oddity – Fermanagh has an extremely low percentage of Presbyterians, with the large majority of local Protestants being Church of Ireland. For complicated cultural reasons, that means there used to be a very high UUP and very low DUP vote, until local UUP MLA Arlene Foster defected along with Jeffrey Donaldson.
Basically, the setup of a slim nationalist majority that could be won by unionists in certain circumstances – demography has been generally making the area more Catholic, but the transfer of the massively republican Coalisland area to Mid Ulster in the 1995 review evened things up again – has marked the history of the constituency as one marked on both sides by unity intrigues and paranoia over vote-splitting. So it was in the 1950s and so it is now – back in those days it was the monolithic Unionist Party, with perpetual bickering between the Nationalist Party and Sinn Féin. (For trivia fans, the unsuccessful SF candidate in 1966 was none other than Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who had previously been abstentionist TD for Longford-Westmeath, and who of course is still knocking around hardline republican politics today.)
We’re not, though, simply talking about the drive to keep themmuns out. We’re also talking about the two tribes talking completely different discourses. Border unionists see themselves essentially as a community under siege, who merely want to remain loyal British subjects in a hostile environment. Border nationalists have their own memories of gerrymandering and discrimination, compounding being put into a statelet that they never asked to be part of in the first place. This total lack of mutual comprehension, let alone empathy, is what inspired the famous Churchill quote about the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone.
Put this into the context of the Troubles, and let’s leave aside such a nakedly sectarian attack as the infamous Enniskillen bombing of 1987. If we rewind to Operation Harvest in the 1950s, one of the military directives from Seán Cronin was that, while the British army and regular RUC were fair game, the B Specials were not to be considered legitimate targets – they were considered to be Protestants in uniform, and the targeting of the B Specials as opening the door to sectarian warfare. This was literally incomprehensible to northern IRA members, who could not conceive of the B Specials not being legitimate targets. Fast forward then to the Troubles, and a key factor here was the Provos’ assassination campaign against Protestant farmers who were members of the UDR or the RUC Reserve. To republicans, this was part of the military campaign; to border unionists, these men were being killed for being Protestants. Fermanagh unionists even use the word “genocide” – which is putting it very strongly, especially given their inability to admit any wrongdoing by unionism – and don’t need much encouragement to talk about sinister plots to drive Protestants off the land.
This background is invaluable when you talk about the most important event in FST electoral history, the election of Bobby Sands at the height of the 1981 hunger strike. Fermanagh unionists, obviously not having an insight into the impact of the hunger strike, regarded Sands as nothing more than a gunman, and got the shock of their lives when 30,000 of their neighbours voted the gunman into parliament. This explains why Ken Maginnis’ election in 1983, and his occupancy of the seat until 2001, had such totemic significance for unionism.
The opposite can be said of Michelle Gildernew’s narrow victory in 2001, in an election marked by some pretty sharp practice it must be said, which border nationalists saw as a vindication; and her emphatic holding of the seat in 2005. Now, I remember when Michelle was picked as SF candidate, and it would be fair to say that there was some disaffection in republican quarters, on the grounds that this was a traditional republican constituency that needed a traditional republican candidate – which was to say, an IRA man, not some young woman from the political side.
Michelle, it must be said, is a fairly inoffensive candidate for a Shinner, and as agriculture minister has arguably been the most effective figure in the Stormont Executive – certainly, she’s assiduous at getting money for farmers, and you regularly read quotes in the local papers from wee Paisleyite farmers talking about how much they love Michelle and how she’s the best minister they’ve ever had. In a PR election, she might even pull in a preference or two; but this is to miss the point. This election is not about the person of Michelle Gildernew, or about abstentionism; from the unionist point of view, it’s about exorcising the ghost of Bobby Sands, and raising the unionist flag again in border country.
And this is what lies behind the candidacy of Rodney Connor, the former chief executive of Fermanagh council who’s been drafted in to front for the DUP/UUP/Tory/TUV/Orange Order grand alliance. Again, the point is not that Rodney Connor is personally sectarian – the word is that he isn’t, and was a scrupulously fair chief executive – but that he is the pan-Prod candidate. This also, of course, makes a liar of David Cameron, since the whole premise of the UCUNF boondoggle was to eschew pan-Prod politics and run Conservative and Unionist candidates in every constituency.
Theoretically, this should make Connor the slight favourite, but there’s going to be an almighty tactical squeeze on the SDLP, as the unionists need the SDLP vote to hold up respectably. There’s been a lot of puffery from both the SDLP and the unionists that their new candidate, former UTV political correspondent Fearghal McKinney, was a strong candidate who would seriously boost the SDLP by virtue of having been on teevee. (This would be the Mike Nesbitt theory.) The wishful thinking element of this was shown up by McKinney’s poor performance in his Politics Show debate with Gerry Kelly, when he appeared completely lost without a script. Also, never underestimate the SDLP’s ability to throw away a position through sheer incompetence.
But the important point is that the pan-Prod candidacy effectively put a gun to the head of moderate SDLP-voting nationalists and asked them whether they’d rather be represented by a moderate unionist like Rodney Connor or by Michelle Gildernew. Unionists have never learned that, if you ask a question like that, you might not like the answer. The likelihood is that, whether Gildernew wins or loses, SF’s populist Save Michelle campaign will see the SDLP vote squeezed to buggery. Having regained the FST seat, local nationalists are unwilling in the extreme to see the Orangemen get it back. There are, for instance, quite a few hardline republicans in south Fermanagh who wouldn’t usually vote, but may well do under these circumstances.
This is impossible to call, of course. In such a tight scenario, this will come down to organisation, to getting the vote out. I do know that SF down in the southwest have been throwing the kitchen sink at this constituency, but whether that will be enough will be apparent later. If they can pull it off, it would be a major triumph and Michelle would be well set to hold the seat indefinitely; if Connor squeaks through very narrowly but the SDLP vote collapses, they can probably console themselves with a moral victory and set about the business of wiping out the SDLP in the rural west.
Phew! And that’s it, all eighteen constituencies covered. Now for some caffeine, till we wait for the results. There will be plenty through the night at Slugger, and over at 1690 An’ All Thon yer man will be providin’ the Ulster Scots results service.