Elections in Fermanagh and South Tyrone can be pretty grim affairs with the spectre of the sectarian head count never far away. There is a certain inevitability in this due to the relatively closely balanced sizes of the two communities and the fact that during the Troubles and indeed the Border Campaign, right back to the 1920s; Fermanagh and the neighbouring parts of Tyrone were stalked by terrorism. Throughout the constituency’s recent history there have been frequent pacts from one side or the other. Michelle Gildernew has held the seat now for two terms and until the agreed unionist candidate was finally settled, it seemed inevitable that she would win for a third time. With Rodney Connor emerging as the united unionist candidate this certainty has evaporated and there is a real chance that the seat could revert to unionists.
Connor is a genuinely good candidate: originally from Castlederg (hopefully Fermanagh people will not hold that against him) and the former chief executive of Fermanagh council, in which post he had a track record of serving the whole community to a very high standard. It is difficult to characterise him as a bigot or a narrow sectional candidate. He has made a major issue of the need FST has for full time representation at Westminster and has been at pains to pledge to be a champion for the whole community.
Connor, having lived most of his life in Fermanagh and Tyrone must, however, know that however hard he tries to be an inclusive candidate and no matter how hard he works for the whole community if he is elected, the reality is that he is likely to gain the support of the overwhelming majority of unionist vote and very little of the nationalist vote. No matter how hard Rodney Connor tries and no matter how personally inclusive he is the simple fact is that this vote will come very close to the sectarian head counts of the past. The bitterness may be a little less than the infamous elections of 1981 but only in degree; it will undoubtedly still be there.
Sinn Fein have already shamelessly tried to make this a straight sectarian fight. In any other context it might be amusing for Michelle Gildernew to denounce Rodney Connor as “the sectarian candidate” and then go on to demand that the SDLP stand aside in order to make the fight a straight head count. If Rodney Connor was standing against a moderate nationalist there might be a degree of truth in her allegations. Rather Gildernew is the non representative of the people of FST at Westminster; she is the one who cannot stomach even attending the parliament to which she has been elected. More than that, however, to understand the sheer hypocrisy of Gildernew in calling Rodney Connor “the sectarian candidate” one has to remember that she is the one who has previously suggested that a future generation of Irish republicans might “have to”go back to violence, that people should not go to the police over certain crimes and who celebrates assorted terrorists. It is not Rodney Connor but Gildernew who supports the murder of Marie Wilson and the others on Remembrance Sunday and the attempt to wipe out the Protestant children at Tullyhommon. It is Michelle Gildernew not Rodney Connor who supports the murders of all those killed in Fermanagh by her friends in the IRA. If unionists wish to unite to end her career of sectarian non representation of FST then that decision is itself far from sectarian. For Sinn Fein to call it such is not the pot calling the kettle black but the cesspit calling the operating theatre unhygienic.
It must be remembered that Gildernew won the first time when Garrison polling station was illegally forced to stay open after its closing time. Sinn Fein will not shrink from bending or breaking as many rules as it needs to win this seat.
In addition although Fermanagh is one of the hot beds of dissident support and an area where Sinn Fein have lost a considerable number of members recently, no anti agreement republican candidate has been declared. Now with unionists uniting it is likely that many of those from rejectionist republicanism who would have decided to abstain will vote Gildernew to stop Rodney Connor, hence, making his job even more difficult though still much easier than the hopeless situation if there were two unionist candidates.
Unionists must not think that Rodney Connor will win without effort. Sinn Fein will now pour considerable effort into holding FST. They will reason that if they can hold FST this time then it may be their’s for good. Some nationalists down here of course will baulk at voting for the cheerleader in chief which Gildernew is, but many will not, even some who normally vote SDLP. It is possible that the SDLP will make little enough effort either through design or more likely incompetence.
Unionists are not all the same here in FST: some will have very similar views to Rodney Connor, others less so. However, if FST is to be represented at Westminster and if Sinn Fein’s much vaunted greening of the west, is to be rolled back then all unionists will have to help. That will mean that local unionists from all three of the parties must put effort into canvassing and helping Rodney Connor’s campaign. In addition the unionist parties will have to send some of their leading members down here to help Rodney’s campaign and direct some of their workers to come down to help. Sinn Fein will certainly be doing the same. Unionists in FST have suffered so much during the IRA’s campaign that they deserve no less than the fulsome support of unionists from outside the constituency.
This campaign may lack some of the bitterness of 1981 but it will be just as closely fought and with just as uncertain an outcome.