Northern Ireland

Constituency Notebook: Sinn Féin face battle to hold onto third seat in Fermanagh & South Tyrone

Dungannon and south Tyrone's population has grown at twice the Northern Ireland rate in the past decade. Picture Mal McCann.
Dungannon and south Tyrone's population has grown at twice the Northern Ireland rate in the past decade. Picture Mal McCann.

A UNIQUELY challenging proposition due to its vast size and make-up, Fermanagh and South Tyrone actually crosses three county boundaries.

Stretching from the Donegal border at Belleek in the west, the constituency reaches across the Clogher Valley and into north Armagh, ending just five miles from the outskirts of Portadown.

Despite the traditional focus on the Fermanagh end of the constituency, south Tyrone and Dungannon in particular has witnessed its population surge at twice the Northern Ireland rate over the past decade, and the next census will likely to show the Tyrone town’s population well above that of Enniskillen's.

It means the resources required to mount a serious election campaign in Fermanagh and South Tyrone immediately leaves smaller parties and independents at a massive disadvantage.

And it makes status quo all more likely, with the bigger parties running multiple candidates able to carve up the constituency and maximize their vote, as demonstrated by Sinn Féin in 2017.

Even so, it doesn’t mean it will be as you were come May 6.

As knife-edge Parliamentary polls have demonstrated, nationalism and unionism are finely balanced in the constituency.

In simple terms, two seats will go to nationalist candidates and two to unionists.

The major battle will be for the fifth seat, with Sinn Féin, the SDLP and DUP all in contention.

Despite impressive gains by Alliance at the 2019 Westminster election, it would take something exceptional for Matthew Beaumont and Alliance to secure the double digit percentage share and transfers they will need to compete for the seat.

Sinn Féin’s ability to field three candidates evenly spread across the constituency leave it well placed, yet it faces a considerable task in holding onto three seats, particularly with its vote falling at the last Westminster election.

A key story in the constituency for the 2022 Assembly battle is perhaps who isn’t involved this time around.

Of Sinn Féin’s three MLAs, only Jemma Dolan has been elected. Áine Murphy had been an MLA for just 38 weeks when the Assembly was dissolved. And while he has been in the Assembly since 2017, May 5 is the first time Colm GIldernew will stand for election.

The Gildernew name and his profile on health matters should see him over the line. It could leave Áine Murphy’s seat vulnerable if the party has a poor day.

Arlene Foster’s exit from front-line politics has left the DUP without a proven vote winner. Her close associate Deborah Erskine, co-opted less than six months ago, and ardent supporter Paul Bell from Aughnacloy, have been selected for the 2022 race.

Their geographical spread should work in the DUP’s favour, but the lack of profile could see the party’s vote share take a dent.

In a ticket that appears devoid of electoral strategy, but full of political experience, the UUP is fielding former MP Tom Elliott and outgoing MLA Rosemary Barton.

Well known in south Tyrone from past Westminster battles where he stood as the sole unionist candidate, Tom Elliott is well-placed to take more votes there.

That would be fine if Mr Elliott didn’t live 10 miles down the road from Ms Barton in Co Fermanagh. A proven vote winner, the odds are in the favour of the Ballinamallard man heading back to Stormont.

With its vote share increasing in recent years, Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a key target for the SDLP.

Adam Gannon stood for the party in the last Westminster election and has been a Fermanagh-based councillor since 2019.

He will likely need a decent jump on the SDLP’s 9.8 per cent share from 2017 for a chance of winning back a seat for the party.

His lower profile in Co Tyrone is against him, but the SDLP proved transfer friendly in the last Assembly election, with Richie McPhillips only 62 votes behind Sinn Féin’s Sean Lynch when he was excluded at the third stage.

If he can stay in the race long enough, Adam Gannon is well-placed to take on the transfers from the likes of Alliance, the Greens and even some of the smaller parties and independents.

Opinion polls suggest May 5 will be the TUV’s best election to date. Alex Elliott performed poorly in 2017, but if he has a good election this year, his transfers could be a crucial factor in deciding which of his fellow unionists go to Stormont.

Candidates

Derek Backhouse Ind

Rosemary Barton UUP

Matthew Beaumont Alliance

Paul Bell DUP

Emma DeSouza Ind

Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Alex Elliott TUV

Tom Elliott UUP

Deborah Erskine DUP

Adam Gannon SDLP

Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Denise Mullen Aontú

Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

Donal O’Cofaigh Cross-Community Labour Alternative

Kellie Turtle Greens