General Election

Constituency profile: West Tyrone voters face ninth election since 2015

Voters in Omagh are going to the polls for the ninth time since 2015
Ryan McAleer

VOTERS in West Tyrone will go to the ballot box for the ninth time since 2015 on December 12.

But all except one of the biggest collapses in recent electoral history will see Sinn Féin retain one of the safest seats in this general election.

The party has already weathered the storm from the fallout of Barry McElduff's resignation last year in the wake of a controversial social media video he posted on the anniversary of the Kingsmill atrocity.

Sinn Féin did take a hit in the ensuing May 2018 by-election, where the turnout fell to 55 per cent. But even with their share slipping by four per cent, Órfhlaith Begley had 7,956 votes to spare over her nearest rival, the DUP's Tom Buchanan.

Aged 27, the solicitor is the first woman to hold the West Tyrone seat. Her promotion came alongside a series of purposeful moves by the party leadership to promote younger female candidates into prominent roles.

A daughter of former councillor and election strategist Sean Begley, she has proved less inclined toward controversy than her predecessor.

For the rest of the parties, the campaign is a test of their current form in the constituency.

The 2011 census showed the West Tyrone demographic split to be 68 per cent Catholic and 30 per cent Protestant.

The boundary for the constituency is drawn around the old Omagh and Strabane district councils.

First introduced for the 1997 general election, few elections since have been as bitter. A virtually even split in the nationalist vote between Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty and Joe Byrne of the SDLP saw sole unionist candidate William Thompson of the UUP become its first MP.

Mr Doherty eventually took the seat in 2001 and the SDLP vote never fully recovered from the emergence of Omagh hospital campaigner Kieran Deeny in 2003.

The SDLP's best result since 2001 came in last year's by-election, when MLA Daniel McCrossan took almost 18 per cent.

A high profile internal fallout in 2016 cost the SDLP three West Tyrone councillors. The party has been in rebuilding mode ever since and managed to recover two seats in the Derg and Sperrin wards earlier this year.

Following William Thompson's defeat in 2001, when the DUP did not stand, Thomas Buchanan has contested every general election for the party since.

The DUP has outperformed the UUP in every council, assembly and Westminster election since 2005, hitting a high watermark of 27 per cent in the 2017 general election.

Like the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist vote in West Tyrone took a battering from the Deeny-led Omagh Hospital campaign in 2003. Its best performance since then came in 2015, when Ross Hussey took a 16 per cent share.

Castlederg NHS worker and long-time trade union activist Andy McKane has been tasked with overturning two very poor Westminster performances for the party.

He unsuccessfully stood for council in May, but was later co-opted onto Derry and Strabane District Council after Derek Hussey was disqualified for 15 months after his third drink-driving conviction.

Alliance has incrementally increased its vote in successive elections in West Tyrone. Stephen Donnelly took the party's first council seat in Omagh since 1997 in May.

Anti-goldmining campaigners also managed to secure a council seat in May in the guise of independent Emmett McAleer.

While they will not contest the upcoming poll, Green Party candidate Susan Glass will hope to win votes of the environmental campaigners.

Former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín's new pro-life republican party Aontú have meanwhile selected Connacht native James Hope to stand in West Tyrone.

The party took 888 votes in the Omagh half of the constituency in May and will look to build on that platform come December 12.

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CANDIDATES

Órfhlaith Begley (SF)

Thomas Buchanan (DUP)

Stephen Donnelly (ALL)

Susan Glass (Greens)

James Hope (Aontú)

Daniel McCrossan (SDLP)

Andy McKane (UUP)

2017 SHARE OF VOTE

SF – 46.7%

DUP – 23.9%

SDLP – 17.9%

UUP – 8.3%

ALL – 3.2%

Electorate: 64,009

Majority: 10,342

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