Towards the end of lastnight’s podcast, Sammy gets in with a few incisive remarks with Gerry McGeough. Unsurprisingly, as he was fresh from writing up his analysis on McGeough’s constituency, Fermanagh South Tyrone. It’s worth kicking off with his acute reading of the demography of the rural part of the county, since it demonstrates just how separate people’s lives are, one community from the other:
FST has a clear, but not overwhelming, Catholic majority (55.6% Catholic, 43.1% Protestant in the 2001 Census). The major towns tend to more Catholic than the rural areas, although there are exceptions. The Catholic population is 58% in Dungannon itself, 62% in Enniskillen, 74% in Lisnaskea, 3% in Ballinamallard, 75% in Irvinestown, 25% in Fivemiletown, 7% in Lisbellaw, 69% in Moy, 91% in Newtownbutler, 98% in Roslea, 12% in Kesh, 82% in Ballygawley, 45% in Aughnacloy, 69% in Tempo and 88% in Belleek. The Protestant population tends to be in a majority in rural areas of the Blackwater and Clogher Valleys, East Dungannon, Moygashel and in North and Central Fermanagh outside the towns of Irvinestown and Tempo. South and West Fermanagh have a Catholic majority of roughly 3:1.
I’ve an inkling that things were not so crystalline at the beginning of the troubles, which has seen a long slow drift of Protestants from isolated rural areas into places like Ballinamallard and Kesh, though I’m sure I can be corrected on that. The one time stronghold of Ulster Unionism was effectively overturned by the defection of one its most able and articulate women politicians, Arlene Foster:
Last time, the UUP and Sinn Féin each elected two MLAs, with the DUP and SDLP returning one each. Those blocs looked so stable that it would have taken an earthquake to shift them this time – for example, the battle for the last seat in 2003 was between Sinn Féin colleagues Tom O’Reilly and Gerry McHugh, always a sign of a constituency where seats are not likely change hands. That earthquake happened, however, when Arlene Foster MLA defected to the DUP.
Since then, the DUP have outpolled the UUP comfortably in the Westminster election, probably aided by tactical voting, and by a narrower margin of 25.0% to 21.7% in the simultaneous local elections. The combined Unionist vote in recent years has consistently been within a few hundred votes of 47%, so there are three clear Unionist quotas here. Clearly, the odds favour the DUP taking two seats, although there are theoretical circumstances in which both UUP candidates might just slip through the middle.
On Bob McCartney’s challenge he notes that “…this area has always proven less fertile territory for anti-agreement candidates than Mid Ulster or points further east”.
On the Nationalist side, he reckons the SDLP are good for a safe single seat, even though they are running two, from each end of the constituency, sitting Fermanagh based MLA Gerry Gallagher and Dungannon Town councillor Vincent Currie. Sinn Fein are running three. The real question is to what degree do McGeough and Republican Sinn Fein pose a threat:
The most high profile is Gerry McGeough, a former IRA gunrunner who has left the orthodox republican movement. While policing may be part of the reason, the more important is that he views the Sinn Féin leadership as being irredeemably liberal-leftist and anti-Catholic. McGeough is an old fashioned clerical right-winger who is opposed to abortion, homosexuality and immigration. While there is, of course, a conservative Catholic section of the electorate in FST, I personally doubt these issues have the salience in Northern Ireland that they do elsewhere. Sectarian conflict is far more important.
In any case, he must build a constituency organisation from scratch, and that may not be easy when his views will alienate activists of hard-left views who might otherwise support an anti-policing platform. Running on a more conventional hard-republican platform is Michael McManus, an ex-IRA prisoner from Lisnaskea who left Sinn Féin along with Ó Brádaigh in 1986. South Fermanagh is something of a stronghold, in relative terms, for RSF and they will at least have something of a membership base to start from.
Although Fermanagh has had a certain tradition of non-aligned Republicans from Frank Maguire to Dessie McPhilips, the six seats seem tightly locked up by other parties. Having two candidates to the right of Sinn Féin makes it more difficult to solidify the anti-policing vote, and in any case the Republican base here is smaller than in Mid Ulster or South Armagh. If there is an anti-leadership wave, FST is probably third in the list of constituencies that would elect an anti-policing Republican. However, given the balance of other parties and their transfer repellance, they would probably need almost full quota to do so.