Sammy Morse on, Mid Ulster…

There are two main battles here. Within Unionism, the DUP will need to get their vote management right to stand a chance of tipping Billy Armstrong out of his seat. With big vote getter Willie McCrea gone that might be less problematic that it once was. On the Nationalist, the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone looks safe as does Sinn Fein’s three seats. Yet Sammy reckons there have been more ructions within the Republican base than almost anywhere else: the RSF candidate Gerry McLaughlin has a credible chance of sneaking one, if he polls more than 12%.

Mid Ulster has returned MLAs with the same set of partisan affiliations in both Assembly elections – 3 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP, 1 DUP and 1 UUP. Nicholas Whyte’s count by count figures, show that this was fairly clear cut last time. Two party colleagues, in this case from the SDLP, duked it out for the last seat with considerable leeway for the next most vulnerable incumbent. However, the 2005 elections confirmed the possibility of change here, with the DUP outpolling the UUP by more than 2-to-1 in the Westminster election. On the Republican side, there has been turmoil in some quarters over Sinn Féin’s decision to accept the PSNI, culminating in the resignation of sitting MLA Geraldine Dougan from the party, and revivified dissident Republican activity, particularly in South Derry.

Sinn Fein, he argues, should be safe for the three seats, since the three quotas are there, and the SDLP seems to have stablised at 17-18%. Interestingly though they seem to have declined fishing for a fourth. He identifies a longer term weakness in McGuinness’s Westminster vote, which he notes was down, even though the SDLP vote remained static. It points to a weakness within the Republican base. And the challengers here are Republican Sinn Fein, in the person of Gerry Brendan McLaughlin:

….the real threat to Sinn Féin’s right comes less from East Tyrone than South Derry, where dissidents have been active and not afraid to shout about it, and where SF have lost a councillor and an MLA is short succession. The loss of the former was apparently a matter of local rather than national politics, but losing Geraldine Dougan was a big deal. McGuinness doesn’t have a local base (and doesn’t need to), O’Neill is based in Coalisland in the far South, as politically is Molloy and he actually lives near the Moy, way down on the Armagh border. That leaves the SF ticket a little thin on local roots in Magherafelt district, and indeed in Cookstown district.

Veterans tend to respect their old comrades. While the bright and attractive Michelle O’Neill clearly has her strengths from a Sinn Féin point of view, I just wonder did they perhaps miss a trick by not running a respected ‘war veteran’ from the South Derry area, either as the third candidate, or as a sweeper taking up a fourth spot in the ballot paper?

In any case, Republican Sinn Féin have taken up the dissident mantle here and are running Brendan McLaughlin, a former Hunger Striker from outside Derry City. He too lacks local roots, which might be a disadvantage but he has a strong Republican pedigree. On paper, this was always the best potential pickup for the dissidents – the largest SF vote apart from West Belfast combined with much more dissent on the policing issue than in West Belfast; a tradition of militant republicans going it alone outside the mainstream Republican movement (think Francis Hughes); and quite a bit of sectarian tension. A candidate with a strong local Republican track record, especially one running on a ‘soft no’ platform of opposition both to the PSNI and a return to war, would have really had Sinn Féin on the rack. As it stands, McLaughlin has his work cut out for him but it’s probably the second best chance for a dissident gain after Newry and Armagh. Sinn Féin clearly take him seriously – last time they ran a 4th candidate here as a sweeper, this time it’s a tight three candidate strategy, the sort you operate when you can’t afford to take risks.

On my sums, he needs 12.2% to win against a well-balanced Sinn Féin ticket, but if McGuinness polls a significantly higher vote than the other two, that target could be as low as 11.5%, or even 10.1% against a very poorly balanced SF ticket. Those are better figures than in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. My money is still on Sinn Féin holding three, but this is clearly a below the radar prospect for RSF.

It’s still a very big ask of a democratically inexperienced RSF. The degree of on-the-ground defections from the Sinn Fein machine may be what swings it.

On the Unionist side, the DUP Willie McCrea’s son Ian is challenging for this father’s seat whilst his running mate, Magherafelt councillor Anne Forde, will be looking to tip the UUP’s Billy Armstrong out of the seat he has held since 1998:

Clearly, Armstrong has his work cut out for him. However, while the DUP are clearly learning vote management lessons, to gain a seat here will require extraordinarily good balancing. Between that and the fact that the UKUP have a local candidate in Walter Millar, a Sandholes-based farmer who represented the DUP on Cookstown Council from 1985 to 1993, there are two barriers to the DUP pulling off a gain. DUP activists will point out that the political trajectory of Millar, once a member of the Ulster Independence Movement and now a candidate for the integrationist UKUP, is a little eccentric. That might well be, but there is clearly potential for a candidate in this area opposed to a deal with Republicans – it is precisely that section of the electorate that has given the DUP such a strong platform here for so long. But this is another seriously close one.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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