Political news

West Tyrone by-election: Other parties consider forming by-election pact

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill with Barry McElduff and Michelle Gildernew at the Omagh count for last year's Westminster election
Brendan Hughes

WITHIN minutes of Barry McElduff announcing his resignation as West Tyrone MP, speculation began about whether other parties might attempt a by-election pact to challenge Sinn Féin.

Based on Sinn Féin's sizeable vote in the constituency in previous elections, they would need a single agreed candidate to have any prospect of success.

The nature of Mr McElduff's departure – over hurt caused to families of Kingsmill victims – means parties may look towards the victims community for possible names.

First to suggest this was Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann, who called for a "non-partisan candidate who will be a voice for victims" to contest the seat.

A candidate involved in campaigning for Troubles victims and who is outside of politics could potentially garner cross-party support.

One unionist source suggested Sharon Gault, who is from a Catholic background and is married to Stephen Gault, whose father was killed in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987.

Read more: Sinn Féin may decide to opt for surprise candidate in West Tyrone by-election

John Manley: Continuing Kingsmill controversy left Sinn Féin with no choice but to jettison McElduff

Allison Morris: The last week has been a shameful time in politics

Former senator Máiría Cahill suggested Breege Quinn, whose son Paul Quinn was murdered in 2007 in an attack blamed on the IRA. However, Mrs Quinn last night ruled herself out as a possible candidate.

To avoid being labelled simply as a candidate for unionist voters, any pact would likely need some form of endorsement from the SDLP or Alliance.

Both parties have been against pacts in the past, although the SDLP was open to a possible 'anti-Brexit pact' for some seats in last year's Westminster election.

Interestingly, Alliance last night did not immediately rule out the prospect, with a spokesman saying: "Today is not for the discussion of elections and strategy but for reflection on the events of last week, and their impact on the victims of Kingsmill and others."

The parties could potentially sidestep their reservations over formal pacts by simply standing aside to give a non-aligned candidate a free run.

A candidate from the victims' community would be an easier sell to their support bases following recent events.

However, for any agreed candidate to gain such a backing, it's likely other boxes would need ticked.

They would need to take their seat at Westminster. In addition, for a border constituency that's predominantly nationalist, it may be necessary for them to have supported Remain in the EU referendum and be from a nationalist background.

The task of finding a suitable candidate backed by multiple parties in a matter of weeks seems insurmountable.

Even with this, the candidate would still have to overthrow Sinn Féin's electoral dominance in the constituency.

In last year's Westminister election, Barry McElduff received just over over half of the votes and more than 10,000 more than his nearest rival, the DUP's Tom Buchanan.

In 2015, Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty secured more than 40 per cent of the vote.

Although the past week has been damaging for the party, it's hard to see at this stage any drop in support being enough to bring a challenger into contention for the seat.

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