John Manley: In the West Tyrone by-election you can bet your house on Begley
Voters in West Tyrone are due to go the polls on Thursday in a by-election triggered by the resignation of MP Barry McElduff. Political Correspondent John Manley however expects it will be a low-key affair in contrast to the episode that prompted it.
IT'S perhaps insulting to the democratic process to describe any by-election outcome as a foregone conclusion but when it comes to West Tyrone it's fair to say you can bet your house on Sinn Féin's Órfhlaith Begley topping the poll.
The expected result, coupled with a degree of election fatigue, means Thursday's by-election is a relatively low key affair, and somewhat contrasting to the episode that prompted it. Polling day comes nearly four months after the constituency's previous MP, Barry McElduff, resigned following outcry over his now infamous Kingsmill video Twitter post.
While the video in question outraged unionists and caused deep hurt to the relatives of those murdered on a south Armagh roadside in 1976, many nationalists are of the opinion that the former Sinn Féin MP's video was just a cruel coincidence and that it was not his intention to deliberately offend.
Given this interpretation of events, it appears highly unlikely that Ms Begley's prospects as a new Sinn Féin MP will be damaged by the circumstances surrounding her predecessor's demise.
The 26-year-old solicitor, who like Mr McElduff hails from Carrickmore, is a relative unknown outside legal circles and her home village. Her father Sean, however, is a former Omagh District Council chairman, meaning she boasts a strong republican pedigree, while at the same time demonstrating her party's willingness to select young, professional, female candidates.
Ms Begley is defending a majority of more than 10,342 – which is just 1,376 votes short of what her nearest challenger, the DUP's Tom Buchanan, polled in June last year. Mr Buchanan, a self-professed creationist, is again contesting the seat for the DUP and is widely expected to be the poll's runner-up.
In the immediate aftermath of Mr McElduff's resignation, there was some brief speculation about an agreed victims' candidate standing in an effort to topple Sinn Féin, or at least register a significant protest vote. Kevin Skelton, whose wife Philomena was killed in the 1998 Omagh bomb, even put his name forward as a potential candidate.
However, it quickly became apparent that it was little more than a fanciful idea peddled by sections of the unionist media. The criteria required for such a candidate to command cross-community support was impossible to fulfil, especially with Brexit remaining such a contentious and divisive issue in a border constituency.
Perhaps greater potential damage to Sinn Féin's sizeable majority lies in the party's plans to update its abortion policy against the background of the Republic's forthcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment. West Tyrone is a rural, conservative constituency, where strict adherence to Catholic doctrine remains common.
Tyrone GAA manager, Mickey Harte, a vocal pro-lifer, could make canvassing on the doorsteps difficult for Sinn Féin, whose leader Mary Lou McDonald recently told The Irish News she did not want "Catholic laws" dictating when women can have an abortion.
Republicans' differences on women's reproductive rights are likely to be exploited by SDLP candidate Daniel McCrossan, whose party leader Colum Eastwood recently reaffirmed his commitment to maintain limited access to abortion, though the party will meet in the coming weeks to debate conscience votes on the issue.
In West Tyrone the SDLP is not without its own problems, however, and in recent years has seen a number of resignations from activists unhappy with the leadership's preference for Mr McCrossan. With next week's poll unlikely to match last June's 67.9 per cent turnout, the SDLP, in common with the Ulster Unionist Chris Smyth, will be happy to retain its share of the vote.
Alliance's Stephen Donnelly will be hoping to improve on the 1,000 votes the party took last year but it has yet to make major advances outside the Belfast 'doughnut' from which it draws most of its support.
Órfhlaith Begley (Sinn Féin)
Tom Buchanan (DUP)
Stephen Donnelly (All)
Daniel McCrossan (SDLP)
Chris Smyth (UUP)
June 2017 Westminster Election – share of vote:
Sinn Féin 50.7 per cent
DUP 26.9 per cent
SDLP 13.0 per cent
UUP 5.2 per cent
All 2.3 per cent
Greens 1.0 per cent
Cista 0.9 per cent