Fifty Shades of Green – a possible unionist comeback in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

The date was the 9th of June 1983. The Police were top of the UK charts with “Every Breath You Take”, Pioneer 10 was passing the orbit of Neptune to become the first man-made object to leave the major planets of the Solar System, and Ken Maginnis of the UUP took the Westminster seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone from Owen Carron of Sinn Féin.

Owen Carron had won the seat in a 1981 by-election following the death of Anti H-Block MP Bobby Sands. The UUP retained the seat until the 2001 General Election, when it was won by Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin, who has held the seat ever since, famously winning against unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor by four votes in 2010. However, there has been talk of an 80s revival in the constituency in the form of a unionist winning the seat from a sitting Republican MP. How does the electoral arithmetic in the constituency stack up?

The seat last had a unionist plurality at the 1997 General Election, but the share of the vote by community bloc since 2003 has been broadly stable. The nationalist vote has been fluctuating around 52%, and the unionist vote has held steady at around 46%. There has been negligible support for the Alliance Party or any other nonaligned party.

FST Bloc Vote

However, whilst the aggregated community bloc vote has been very stable, this masks a lot of variation between parties within community blocs. The chart below shows how party support has fluctuated. Note that Rodney Connor has been counted as a UUP candidate, on the grounds that he was to take the Conservative whip had he been elected, due to the UCU-NF alliance at the time.

FST Party Vote

Electoral fortunes have fluctuated widely in the constituency. The UUP and the DUP have exchanged the lead in the unionist community vote, with the UUP currently in the ascendancy following a strong showing at the 2014 local elections. The SDLP vote has been recovering, although it is evident that there were many SDLP to SF switchers at the 2010 election, and it is very plausible that these voters would vote Sinn Féin again at a first-past-the-post Westminster election. However, the Sinn Féin vote has been steadily eroded at the 2011 and 2014 elections, partly due to an increase in SDLP support, but also because of a rise in support for independent, former Sinn Féin candidates.

Sinn Féin’s share of the vote in 2014 (32%) was the lowest it has been since the 27% it received in 1998. Of course, in a first-past-the-post Westminster election many of those supporting independent republican candidates in 2014 are likely to return to voting Sinn Féin in 2015. But it may be sign of waning enthusiasm for Michelle Gildernew’s party in the area, and given the wafer thin margins between victory and defeat in the constituency, it may be enough to let a unionist candidate through.

Another shade of green to consider is the candidacy of Tanya Jones of the Green Party. The Green Party have no electoral history in the area other than the handful (71) of votes that they won in Enniskillen in 2014, but the anti-fracking cause is popular in the constituency, and it is not beyond the realms of the possibility that the Green Party could attract a few disaffected Sinn Féin voters animated by the anti-fracking cause. Former SF councillor Donal O’Cofaigh won 555 votes on an anti-fracking platform in Enniskillen, and in a tight race the Greens could deprive Michelle Gildernew of a few vital votes.

It is certainly possible that a strong campaign from a unionist candidate could reclaim the seat lost to Sinn Féin in 2001. However, if both the DUP and the UUP both run candidates then Michelle Gildernew has about as much chance of losing her seat as Paul Maskey has of losing his in West Belfast (i.e. nil), and everything you have just read has been a complete waste of your time. In which case, sorry!

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  • Gerry Lynch

    It’s never a complete waste of time to read some well-researched election nerdery!

  • Muiris

    This all goes to show the incompatibility of FPTP and democracy

  • Colin Lamont

    The fact is that 2010 was the lowest ever unionist share in this constituency….coincidence?
    As proved to be the case, the tiny % drop cost made all the difference.
    I also think the 2014 shares underestimate the unionist total. There was a small area from Dungannon added to Armagh which is heavily unionist, and a small area added to Dungannon town from the Mid Ulster constituency which is mostly nationalist. Not huge margins of course, but they don’t need to be in FST.

  • Colin Lamont

    What’s your prediction on this one Gerry?

  • Ernekid

    Even if there is a Unionist Unity candidate, Gildernew is going to be re-elected comfortably. She is a popular figure locally with a well oiled political operation that has an effective and active party base to knock on doors and get the vote out. Fermanagh’s demographics now mean that in a FPTP election a nationalist will likely be elected in perpetuity.

    The SDLP aren’t going to make a real dent in Gildernews support especially with a weak candidate like John Coyle.

  • Gerry Lynch

    If there’s a joint unionist candidate, very difficult to predict. SF must be favourites but, given that there were only four votes in it last time, it could go either way. Rodney Connor got 900 votes fewer than the combined Unionist total in 2011, for example. Could a different Unionist candidate do better in bringing people out to vote? That’s hard to know.

  • tmitch57

    Salmon,
    In NI there are three main voting blocs (nationalist, non-sectarian, unionist) with movement mostly within blocs rather than between them. In Israel there are about five blocs (Left-Center, Right, Center-floating, religious, Arab) with the same phenomenon of switching parties within the bloc but not a lot of switching between blocs. But there have been at least two major cross-bloc voting shifts, both to the right: after June 1967 and after Oct. 2000. The only cross-bloc shift that I can think of in NI was in 1981 when many Alliance voters from a nationalist background shifted to the SDLP after the hunger strikes and Alliance was wiped out west of the Bann. Have there been other cross-bloc shifts that have affected FST?

  • Gingray

    Another great analysis, keep it up!

    One thing to also consider is the census figures. Note that these are total population, not just voting age. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2011 protestants where 40,100 with catholics 59,159 and others 3,294.

    That’s catholics up from 50,647 and protestant 39,229. So from 5:4 to 6:4 in ten years.

    Turnout is also hugely important, with an older but smaller unionist electorate who are more motivated to vote.

  • AdamRamsay

    Thanks – yes, it’s one of my favourite facts about UK politics that Sinn Fein won the seats with the biggest and the smallest majorities in 2010.

    It’s interesting that you specifically see Greens taking votes off Sinn Fein, without saying they might also take votes off unionists. Is there a particular reason for this?

    thanks.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Agree with your prediction Ernekid, as the contest like North Belfast has now been driven into a Green V Orange Scrap. Although I think Alban (North Belfast) is a much superior politician than John (FST) I think Sinn Fein are going to squeeze the SDLP vote in both constituencies.

  • Dan

    In all the decades that Alban has been in politics, the only memorable thing I can think him doing, was to speak English in a cringeworthy French accent at some North African reception during his time as Lord Mayor.
    …but like Steve McLaren with his Dutch accent.
    Wish BBC would dig out the clip. I’d love to see it again.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Your so kind Dan but I must admit you did make me laugh ! Enjoyed the post ! It put a smile on my face on a dreary Thursday morning !

  • mjh

    There is no reason to expect the Greens to have a particular impact on Sinn Fein.

    The biggest interaction between Greens and other parties (as shown by the transfers in Council and Assembly elections) is with other cross-community candidates – usually Alliance but also socialists, NI21 and some independents.

    In the last Council elections when Green candidates were excluded 42% transferred to Alliance and 3% to other cross community candidates.
    23% did not transfer at all.

    23% transferred to unionist candidates and 9% to nationalist candidates. The figure for nationalists is misleading because there was not always a nationalist candidate available to transfer to. Where there was one the figure rose to 15%. And when there was an SDLP candidate available it rose to 18%.

    There was only one District Electoral Area where the excluded Green voters had the choice of 2 nationalist candidates – and there twice as many chose the SDLP as went for SF.

    These figures are for NI – not specifically FST.

  • salmonofdata

    It’s true there is not much in the way of data to suppose that Green voters are more likely to be drawn from the SF vote than the unionist vote. I was speculating that, because a former Sinn Féin independent gained a respectable vote in Enniskillen on an anti-fracking platform in 2014, that there might be some disillusioned SF voters particularly animated by the anti-fracking cause who may vote for the Green candidate.

    We will need to wait until after the poll to see if this might make an impact. It has now been four years since an Assembly or Westminster election, and there is a lack of relevant recent data, hence having to make do with extrapolated council results. The point is that if the Council results do point to a potential softening in enthusiasm for Sinn Féin in the area, then it is still very possible that a strong unionist unity candidate could take the seat, given that the nationalist vote has not really increased its lead over the unionist vote since 2010.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    This will come down to an old fashioned Protestant vrs Catholic battle and since the Catholic population is multiplying at a disproportionate rate in FST, I cannot fathom anything other than a Sinn Fein victory.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    I contacted him on a constituency matter and found him to be of a great help.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Also, mjh, those transfer figures are skewed by the fact that Greens were mostly running in majority unionist areas.
    .
    In FST, the Greens will be in the lower hundreds in the sectarian headcount that FPTP encourages & O Cofaigh’s council vote will mostly revert back to SF who can play the anti-fracking card when it suits. Unionists could take this seat on a perfect storm type day (which won’t happen if they choose an Orange Order unity candidate as is being mooted) but as the demographics show it would the last sting of a dying wasp.

  • streetlegal

    Support for Provisional Sinn Fein is on the decline in hard line republican backwoods areas. It is possible that a ‘dissident’ republican candidate could eat substantially into Gildernew’s vote.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Where are the facts to confirm that Gilderniew is a popular figure in FST? It is my understanding she is only voted in to keep Unionists out.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Note that Rodney Connor has been counted as a UUP candidate, on the grounds that he was to take the Conservative whip had he been elected, due to the UCU-NF alliance at the time.

    I would have divided the vote 50/50 between the DUP and UUP, Connor said he was going to take the Conservative whip half the time.

  • Old Mortality

    Gingray
    From the Oxford University Migration Observatory: ‘However Dungannon saw the biggest change in its population of residents born outside the UK and the RoI between 2001-2011, which increased more than tenfold (1,139%) from 484 in 2001 to 5,998 in 2011.’

    Being mainly Polish, Lithuanian and Tomorese/Portuguese, the great majority of them would probably have ticked the ‘Catholic’ box. Even if they were unlikely admirers of Gildernew, I don’t believe they’re eligible to vote in national elections

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Has that figres of 5998 not reduced some since the recession started to really bite?

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Surely it’s the point of Slugger to analyse all candidates not just the more famous ones?

    Ernekid is an Irvinestown lad and massive shinner, he’s always going to knock the SDLP.

  • Gingray

    Old Mortality
    I am using the census figures from 2011, on the NISRA
    site. Table LC2202NI: COUNTRY OF BIRTH BY RELIGION, with sub table
    N0600007 relating to Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

    For those not born
    in the UK or Ireland, the numbers are 4,668 Catholic, 640 Protestant,
    2,157 Other for a total of 7,465, higher than the OU stats
    interestingly. I am assuming as well from your premise that you discount
    the fact the Portuguese started arriving in the late 90s and so would
    have been present at the 2001 census?

    Regardless, taking out the
    non UK numbers, there is a net change of over 5000 Catholics, with more
    or less 0 change in Protestants.

    Table DC2117NI-N0600007 is also
    of interest. Catholics aged 0-49 make up 41.25% of the FST population,
    Catholics 50+ 16.43%, Protestants 0-49 are 24.59% with Protestants 50+
    14.52%. Others are 3.21%. With an aging population to get votes from,
    Unionist parties in Fermanagh/South Tyrone will need unity AND low
    catholic/high unionist turnout if they are to win.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Politics is as much about the individual as it is about policies.

  • AdamRamsay

    OK, thanks.

  • AdamRamsay

    interesting, thanks. A few years back, I wrote a dissertation on transfers to and from Greens in STV elections in Scotland, so this comment took me back!

  • Ernekid

    ‘Ernekie is … A massive shinner’

    Excuse me Joe. I am not a member of Sinn Fein or any other party. Please refrain from making assumptions about me on the future.

    Thank you.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    You’re always bashing every party and boasting how “great” Sinn Fein is – how else can you be judged?

  • Paddy Reilly

    With regard to Timorese, it would not have decreased because
    they have nowhere to go back to. However, one would expect that having been here for approximately 18 years, they would to a large extent be assimilated in the local population, through going to the same schools, attending the same churches, intermarriage, etc.

    Also, as they will have been going to Michelle Gildernew to get their immigration and nationality problems sorted out, they
    may even have been assimilated to the Sinn Féin political machine.

  • puffen

    So in other words, we will not indulge in a cogent argument, because we are better at the giggy giggy than you themmums,

  • Joe_Hoggs

    That’s what we’re told on Slugger, the narrative is that Unionists are playing out their final days until the Catholic birthrate obliterates that of other religions thus forcing home Nationalist majorities and ultimately a UI.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    He was more UUP than TUV. I know many who didn’t vote for him due to this and due to the fact he wasn’t in the Orange.

  • puffen

    I have to agree with your analysis, unfortunately there is nothing I can do to correct the final outcome, because , one i have had a vasectomy, and two there is not enough young ladies, who might find me me attractive, however, there are some unicorns, whom I spoken some of whom vote SF, whom are Public Servants who will not jump, until their financial future is secured, in their Vahalla , Ten per cent of Castle Catholics will secure the Union, and there is a lot more than that, so calm down, the future is assured

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Just from reviewing some of the so called “unionists” on here, the wind blowing the wrong way would be enough to entice them to vote for a UI,
    Haven’t some on here also warned that Catholic majorities in certain areas will result in the equalising of some perceived past “sins” by Unionists?

  • Nicholas Whyte

    The date was the 9th of June 1983. The Police were top of the UK charts with “Every Breath You Take”, Pioneer 10 was passing the orbit of Neptune to become the first man-made object to leave the major planets of the Solar System – do I detect a fellow fan of Philip Sandifer’s excellent Doctor Who blog?

    On the numbers, it should be noted that the UUP were also ahead of the DUP here in the 2011 local government elections as well as the 2014 local elections. The constituency is identical with the former boundaries of Dungannon and Fermanagh districts, and the 2011 local government vote totals were:

    SF 15,884 (33.1%) – compare 19,338 (40.3%) for the Assembly election the same day
    UUP 11,101 (23.1%) – compare 9,262 (19.3%) for the Assembly
    DUP 10,247 (21.4%) – compare 11,720 (24.4%) for the Assembly
    SDLP 6,101 (12.7%) – compare 4,606 (9.6%) for the Assembly
    TUV 717 (1.5%) – compare 1,231 (2.6%) for the Assembly

    So that slightly strengthens the UUP case for their candidate, rather than the DUP’s fighting FST in the event of a Unionist pact – though I think this is an academic question, as there will probably not be a Unionist pact, and if there is, I imagine that they will look outside the party structures again for their candidate here.

    As for the result, Turgon’s detailed analysis of why Unionists lost in 2010 remains cogent. He stipulated then that next time “there needs to be a candidate identified well in advance”. 76 days to go, and it hasn’t happened yet.

  • Fidellum

    I’m with Tanya Jones! That’s because she is sincerely anti-fracking.

  • mjh

    It’s precisely because the DUP and the UUP both believe that they could yet pull decisively ahead of the other that neither will let the other take the honour of being the sole unionist contender in FST. The UUP hope that if they supplied the standard bearer this May he would lead them into taking a second seat in next year’s Assembly Election. And the DUP are equally determined that will not happen.

    If this were the Judgement of Solomon both mothers would prefer to see the baby cut in half.

  • salmonofdata

    I haven’t come across that blog before, but I am a big fan of Doctor Who so will check that out. I agree that the UUP have a better chance of nicking the seat if they were given a free run, but also reckon that the DUP would rather let Sinn Féin have the Westminster seat rather than give the UUP any momentum in FST for 2016. I suspect that they think that they don’t need any help in Belfast, so there is no need to accommodate the UUP in FST since they have no chance of winning FST themselves. I could be wrong, though. This is a weird election.

  • Robin Keogh

    If there is any chance that a Unionist candidate might take the FST seat you can bet your bottom dollar that nationalists will swarm to vote SF, as happenned in 2010.

  • Robin Keogh

    Joe i am an avowed irish nationalist who believes that the future of all our people is assured in a united ireland. However, i would never tolerate a vengence dynamic, in fact i would fight against it.

  • carl marks

    I wonder, Tom Elliott had have been a bit less offensive towards nationalist’s and maybe accepted a invitation to attend a GAA match then maybe there might have been 10 nationalist’s who thought ” Hey Tom’s not a bad oul spud, and even if they didn’t vote unionist , might not have voted SF. then this could be a completely different discussion.
    what I am saying is that a bit less deliberate insult and a bit of reaching out might have made FST a unionist seat, all it would have needed to do was change the minds of ten voters.

  • Paddy Reilly

    The current Catholic birthrate (actually quite low) has nothing to do with it.

    The first problem is that the Chauvinist Unionist founding fathers opted for a Unionist state which was substantially larger than Unionism could hope to retain a majority in, except by exercising extreme discriminatory control over job and housing opportunities;

    The second problem is that this discrimination was dismantled in 1976 by the Fair Employment Act, since when the percentage of Catholics (and Nationalists) in the province, in employment and in Stormont has been steadily rising.

    The result is that the 2010 Westminster elections left the NI constituencies only a couple of thousand votes short of a Nationalist majority (9 out of 18 seats) and the next election is nearly upon us. Of course, if that disaster does happen, Unionists will point to the state of the parties in Stormont, and when Stormont fails them, they will fall back on Opinion Polls, where the questions have been weighted to produce an answer pleasing to Unionist ears. The dangers of believing your own propaganda.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Yes but 20 Unionists would have been so outraged at his attending a GAA match that they wouldn’t have voted for him. Trying to please everybody doesn’t work.

  • Kevin Breslin

    There will be no dissident republican candidate against unionist unity if both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are standing.

  • carl marks

    Joe did you hear that from a nationalist ! telling you mate it’s not true why would we want to repeat the mistake that was the old NI,
    you know a lot of us have friends and relatives who are protestant, why on earth would we let anybody pick on them.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    What is the current Catholic and Protestant birthrate?

  • Paddy Reilly

    I believe the Catholic birth rate is around 14.3 per 1000 population and the Protestant rate 12.6. The average birth rate in Northern Ireland as a whole is 13.9. If we were relying on today’s parents to change the demography, it would take hundreds of years.

    A more significant statistic is that Catholics outnumber Protestants in every age group up to 44.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Sorry Paddy, I’m being think here but what does 14.3 per 1000 population mean?

  • Paddy Reilly

    If there are 1,000 people, then we may expect them to have 14.3 weans in any given year?

    If you wish to further ask what 0.3 of a wean is, it means they have 14 childer in a normal year, but 15 in 10 particular years out of every 30 year period.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    I thought the way Tom behaved over the weekend and indeed a local GAA team to be completely reflective of what in my opinion both the Orange and GAA should be about.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    They’re looking at Stuart Brooker who is a UUP man.

  • carl marks

    sorry Joe you have lost me , what happened over the weekend?
    by the way did you get to Cathedral Hall in Enniskillen on sat! it was quite interesting.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Was that the WWI exhibition? I didn’t get to it – did you enjoy?

    Here is the topic I was talking about:

    http://www.impartialreporter.com/news/roundup/articles/2015/02/19/407984-mcgraths-and-belcoo-players-attend-magheracross-church-football-service/

  • carl marks

    I checked that link out, and you are right that is the way we should behave towards each other.
    A terrible tragedy for Oisin’s family, it’s amazing how much a kindness can comfort in sad times.

  • carl marks

    The exhibition was interesting, I was a bit disappointed that there was so little relating to the battles the Skin’s fought in , but plenty of memorabilia from the formation of the 36 div to the UDR