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!

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy