Fermanagh South Tyrone: one day a unionist will stand on that stage as victor.

Tom ElliottAs a number of people have noted 5 years ago I did a blog in the aftermath of Rodney Connor’s defeat in Fermanagh South Tyrone. Many unionists (like myself) were disconsolate. Many unionists and nationalists regarded FST as lost to unionism forever. It had in Gildernew a relatively young MP who had just been re elected for the second time; a unionist pact had failed to defeat her and the greening of the west had almost completed, threatening to bring the tide of nationalism to just outside the gates of Portadown and Coleraine.

The reasons for that defeat included running a unity candidate too late; him being too liberal a unionist; having an inadequate political profile (though he was Fermanagh councils outgoing chief executive he had no political track record) and a lack organisation.

At that time I, unlike many suggested that all was not lost. I suggested that a harder line candidate with a higher profile, an earlier pact decision and a more organised campaign could win: thus it proved. In essence, however, it needed one positive thing and one negative (which I did not foresee): they were Tom Elliott and Michelle Gildernew.

Elliott was derided during his tenure as leader (in my view very unfairly). In Fermanagh, however, this slow and softly spoken farmer had managed to become the leader of Fermanagh unionism even more so than the other “big beast” Arlene Foster. Tom had always had a reputation for extreme hard work and being known by practically everyone. At the 2011 Assembly election he just edged ahead of Foster but she was realistically too busy as a Stormont minister to have a good chance of toppling Gildernew. Elliott had clearly had his problems such as the famous “scum” remark at the 2011 election count but had continued with the hard work and popularity within unionism: more so than Connor could ever have hoped to have; possibly now more so than Foster either.

In addition the simple fact has always been that Michelle Gildernew is a bit of a bogey person to local unionists. She has always made no secret of her support for the IRA’s campaign and has continued her appearance at assorted hunger strike commemorations etc.

Gildernew was, however, hampered by the seeming loss of momentum in nationalism over the past five years: those were still the days when “Liberation by 2016” was talked of. Furthermore Sinn Fein seemed not fully to appreciate the dangers inherent in a four seat majority just as some unionists seemed to failed to see the opportunities.

There is also one aspect which I must confess to finding sad about Gildernew’s defeat. Ms. Gildernew has spoken bravely about her health problems specifically her problems with depression. As a personal aside I have seen several members of my own and my wife’s family have problems with this awful, pernicious illness and I gain no pleasure in seeing that as a cause of problems for her and would wish it on no one.

However, having a less high profile, because of her health, will have hurt her in a seat where the leading politicians are at times seen almost as tribal chieftains.

In face of this mix of an almost impossibly tight race; a new superior unionist candidate and an MP with, through no fault of her own, a lower profile, Sinn Fein seem to have done remarkably little. It appears that Sinn Fein thought the same as the disconsolate unionists – that a four seat majority would inevitably grow with a rising Catholic population. They appeared to believe in the concept of inevitable unstoppable forward momentum: a sort of legacy of classic Marxist doctrine. As such they focused on their attempts to get Gerry Kelly elected in North Belfast and the frankly ludicrous idea that Catherine Seeley could take Upper Bann. Last time there were stories of cars being organised to get people without a postal vote home to FST for the election: this time there were many less such stories.

As such the causes of this victory for unionism are multiple yet hinge on a simple fact: the populations of the two communities in Fermanagh South Tyrone are pretty evenly balanced and last time there were 4 votes in it. Unionists should never have despaired: republicans should never have become complacent. That argument will run in reverse next time as well. For the meantime, however, the most westerly constituency in the UK has a unionist MP. I did say last time: one day a unionist will stand on that stage as victor. Over the last few weeks I had begun to suspect it was this time: that it was a seen as a surprise is itself surprising.

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  • Cue Bono

    “They appeared to believe in the concept of inevitable unstoppable
    forward momentum: a sort of legacy of classic Marxist doctrine.”

    Absolutely spot on.

    During the last election when she scraped in by four votes a friend of mine from Fermanagh told me that no one in his famiy had bothered to vote. On decisions like that huge changes can hang.

    Well done FST.

  • Joe Walker

    Of course, Gildernew’s defeat may mean that Sinn Fein will run a stronger candidate at the next electiion.

  • sk

    I think they should start taking their bloody seats. And enough of the Bobby Sands bullshit too please.

  • Cue Bono

    The Sinn Fein cult views Bobby Sands in much the same way that the church views Jesus Christ. It would be sacrilege for them to abandom him, and it would cost them even more votes amongst the faithful.

    You also need to remember that it was the argument about taking seats in Westminster that led to the creation of the Provos in the first place.

  • Cue Bono

    Who could that stronger candidate be Joe?

  • NMS

    I wonder how much of the loss is down to emigration? As discussed previously here under another piece, the GAA transfer lists reflected a steady stream of departures from West of the Bann, with a much smaller proportion transferring back into clubs in that area.

    There was a particularly heavy dependence on construction work in the area and much of that work was South of the Border. Even with the pick up, Northern Ireland contractors are in a much weaker position with costs in sterling. There is also resistance on sites to the use of Northern Ireland contractors. Indeed, the Irish unions have highlighted serious non-compliance with Irish tax and employment rules, specifically on Public Sector projects.

    Rural emigration is a major problem in the surrounding counties of Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim & North Mayo. If emigration is a factor in the loss, then the chances of Ms Gildernew or any replacement winning in the future must be poorer than is imagined.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I’m not sure. Gildernew earned 2200 or so more votes than before, so it’s not a case of people not being there (although her share of the vote dropped very slightly). By the same token, Elliott was able to add 1% to Rodney Connor’s result and this clinched it.

    I don’t think this is immigration, it’s politics. SF are starting to go stale, especially as their election experts have to spread themselves rather more thinly in pursuit of victories across the island. They’re not able to muster the increasing vote that they could before.

    Since the UUP have very few skilled election experts and seem to have managed to win anyway, I can only think there is a relevelling going on within unionism, with those who had temporarily loaned their votes to the DUP returning to the fold.

  • james

    Why? Unionists don’t emigrate, too.

  • Gingray

    Could be all over if nationalists choose to go down the pact route after seeing how effective it can be.

    The unionist vote seems to rest between 45-48%, nationalism around 51-53%. Obviously enthusiasm or apathy will impact this, but that’s 2-3k of a difference.

  • salmonofdata

    I can’t see how immigration was a major factor, as the Sinn Féin vote actually increased. At 23,078, the Sinn Féin vote in the constituency was 1,778 more than their vote in 2010, and the combined SDLP & SF vote was nearly 1,000 more than in 2010. Michelle Gildernew actually received more votes than any other republican candidate since Owen Carron in 1981. The UUP simply did a better job of getting their vote out.

  • NMS

    Thanks for your comments. I accept that she received more votes than before and the turnout was up, but is the increase in the Nationalist population that was expected to make the seat safe, now stymied by emigration?

    There is certainly a staleness in the SF lineout. Bringing back Máirtín ÓMuilleor aged 56/57 suggested a serious problem with new candidates. Also running a pensioner in Newry/South Armagh reflects the same problem. Sinn Féin seem either not to trust their younger members, or similar to the Saudi family, are unwilling to jump generations. A candidate such as Niall ÓDonnghaile could perhaps have done better.

    If they are spread thinly now, can you imagine next year? They will be facing a GE in Ireland and an Assembly contest in NI. I also wonder will Dave cut off the cash by restricting their expenses unless they take their seats? This would be a simple easy deliverable to the DUP. It is straightforward now to row back on all the little favours their Uncle Tony did for them.

    They will find it very difficult to deal with the likes of the Trot, Gerry Carroll, in West Belfast, who will have a field day attacking them for “enforcing the Tory cuts”. The SWP will be able to devote considerable resources from both London & Dublin to getting him elected.

  • Robin Keogh

    …..One day a nationalist will stand on that stage as Victor….

  • NMS

    Percentage turnout increased by 3.3%, which accounts for some of the improvement, but the UUP voters perhaps felt that they had a better reason to vote this time. Though the figures are still far below the turnouts in 1981 which were 86.9%, second 1981 election 88.6% and will never be seen again.

    I suppose my point was more that the steady increase in the Nationalist population my be coming to an end with emigration.

  • Cue Bono

    When SF stand aside and graciously gift the seat to the SDLP?

  • Robin Keogh

    Possibly, or not…who knows right now? Only five years to wait.

  • Cue Bono

    Just a year before we celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary.

    How many senior Sinners will have shuffled off this mortal coil by then, and who is standing by to replace them?

  • Robin Keogh

    Me and Thousands like me

  • Turgon

    Yes maybe.The point is that the received wisdom was that having failed to regain the seat in 2010 unionists could never do so again.

    Now clearly republicanism can advance again but the shibboleth of irreversible republican progress has been shown to be untrue.

  • Cue Bono

    LOL unionists should quiver in their boots.

  • Robin Keogh

    and you know, sometimes its not always a bad thing to get a sharp slap in the face, hpefully it will focus minds goinfg forward

  • Robin Keogh

    all good then

  • Mike the First

    Thought you lived in the Republic of Ireland.

  • Robin Keogh

    ….and?

  • NotNowJohnny

    “….Many unionists (like myself) were disconsolate…….. Many unionists and nationalists regarded FST as lost to unionism forever ….. And the greening of the west had almost completed, threatening to bring the tide of nationalism to just outside the gates of Portadown”

    Steady on ….. only one unionist MP previously won the seat in FST during the last 40 years and during his watch both the Anglo Irish Agreement and the entry of Sinn Fein into the government of NI for the first time take place. On this basis having a unionist MP in FST seems more like something to be disconsolate about. The truth is that on the grand scale of things it matters not one hoot whether unionism wins FST or not. Unionism used to take every seat at Westminster and a lot of use that did. Pretending it’s important is just kidding oneself.

  • Cue Bono

    Yes of course Robin. All good today. Snigger.

  • Cue Bono

    The one thing that I really admire about republicans is their ability to tell each other that, despite the reality of what is going on around them, they are actually doing very well.

  • Robin Keogh

    and I hope you continue to enjoy it with continued grace and humility

  • Cue Bono

    Of course mate. I wouldn’t dream of rubbing your face in the sh1te or anything. 🙂

  • Robin Keogh

    LOL

  • NotNowJohnny

    You’ve completely lost me there …. Who’s the republicans you are referring to and who on earth thinks republicans are doing well?

  • NMS
  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Indeed Robin.

    I believe this will serve to encourage a nationalist pact.
    So, in five years time unionism could be faced with the scenario of losing out to a unified nationalist candidate, a harsher swing of ever encroaching demographic change and (more importantly imho) 5 years lost ground in terms of the ultimate goal of enticing voters of a Catholic background.

    Unionism needs to become a political ideology, not a religious orientated ideology otherwise it’s toast, this means it needs voters of a Catholic background.

    This process should have begun in the 1920’s but I can scarcely see such a an idea getting off the ground till the 2020’s.

    (FYI, that’s why I am strangely supportive of SF advances in election times, if SF had taken 3 of the Belfast seats then unionism might finally think “hmmmm, time for a change of tact….” so the sooner SF become the bigger party the better as far as I’m concerned, I believe it would serve as a catalyst for change within unionism. But that’s just me….)

  • Deke Thornton

    Glad to see a representative for the constituency at National level. The whole Bobby Sands thing is a sideshow. Back in the day, NI was represented at Westminster by people like Rafton Pounder and Captain Tom Orr. . Orr lived on a houseboat on the Thames I think. Terence O’Neill had a good rapport with Westminster and knew the times they were a changing. Google his ‘Ulster at the Crossroads’ speech if you want to know the thinking at the time. It’s different now. Stormont has no power where it matters . Absentee MP’s are of no value. Actually they empower a small majority party. Michelle Gildernew was useless. Tom Elliot is useful.

  • Joe Walker

    Why? What good would it do? Besides if the British really wanted Sinn Fein to take their seats, they would get rid of that oath of loyalty to the British monarch that MPs have to take.

  • Joe Walker

    Don’t know. I just always thought that Gildernew was kind of weak.

  • Joe Walker

    I don’t think anyone in Sinn Fein believed “in the concept of inevitable unstoppable forward momentum”. Gildernew lost because she didn’t inspire her constituents, not because Sinn Fein was complacent. With a better candidate, Sinn Fein might have held on to the seat.

  • Joe Walker

    What are all the bad things that are happening to republicans?

  • Joe Walker

    But is it coming to an end? Or are we seeing a last hurrah for unionism in places like FST?

  • Joe Walker

    Since they are more likely to move to places such as England and Scotland it is generally not considered to be emigration but it does reduce their vote in the Six Counties.

  • Joe Walker

    Who is Elliot useful to?

  • Joe Walker

    Sinn Fein seeks to compete for seats just like every other political party. The SDLP are just a bunch of whiners who can’t stand that Sinn Fein is more popular than they are.

  • Joe Walker

    There was no “received wisdom” except in your imagination. Sinn Fein knew that it would be difficult to hold on to the seat which it was. The unionists will probably find the seat equally difficult to hold onto.

  • Joe Walker

    What sh!te? They lost one seat which they have a good chance of recapturing at the next election.

  • Joe Walker

    If they were smart they probably would. Elliot will probably need to increase his vote at the next election to hold onto his seat but can he do it?

  • Joe Walker

    I doubt that a huge number of Sinn Fein’s leaders are going to die in the next year unless you know something that we don’t. In actuality, the next generation of Sinn Fein leaders will probably be better educated than the current one which will probably make them more effective. It will probably also make it easier for Sinn Fein to take away more voters from the SDLP since the Sinn Fein leadership will have a more middle class profile than it does now.

  • Joe Walker

    I guess that would depend on what the SDLP were willing to give up to Sinn Fein in return.

  • Joe Walker

    Good point. I wonder how the results in Scotland will effect things in the North?

  • james

    Well, it isn’t emigration at all if it is within the UK. I take your point about the drain on votes but I’m interested if destination correlates somehow to political colour. I know a lot of Irish used to head for Australia, though the patience of the Ozzies seems to have worn a bit thin on that one. I’ve always seen USA and Australia as a more appealing to Nationalists, NZ and Canada more of a unionist choice. Just a thought.

  • tmitch57

    “I cant find much sympathy for Sinn Féin.
    They seek to destroy SDLP and at the same time look for pacts.”

    John,
    You could easily substitute DUP and UUP for Sinn Fein and SDLP.

  • cu chulainn

    Nationalists aren’t all that bothered about who goes to Westminster, the unionist population of the lakelands may have put greater importance on this matter. I wouldn’t draw any big conclusions from this.

  • tmitch57

    Well then, doesn’t the fact that SF renominated Gildernew as its candidate for the seat demonstrate complacency?

  • james

    Useful to the entire community since his politics is about getting things done, rather than pursuing irrelevancies and glamorizing murderers, like wee Michelle. 2 t’s.

  • Carl Mark

    I think that the attitude of British Unionists to NI unionists was displayed in the Scottish referendum,
    It was I believe, Stay away you will damage our campaign! the reputation that unionists have for sectarianism, and there links with terrorists not to mention the utterly embarrassing line on Gay rights and the 6000 years nonsense means that you could send 18 unionists to Westminster and the Tory’s (or anybody else) will only deal with them as a last resort.
    Now we all know that Tom is going to make a fool of himself sooner or later (the man has form) but sure it will all work out (for us Nationalists ) in the end!

  • Carl Mark

    any examples of this perceived wisdom!

  • Carl Mark

    It would be nice to think that Unionism would wise up but history tell us that is not likely.
    Any Unionist who attempts to bring them into the 21st century in labelled a Lundy.
    if we look at the Nasty little whispering campaign carried out by the unionist posters on this site against Naomi Long it shows us the immaturity of unionism.
    Sorry AG but as unionism loses ground it will just circle the wagons , don the sash and wave a flag plus of course a good dose of mopery.

  • Carl Mark

    that would explain the GAA and Irish clubs all over OZ,

  • Cavignac

    Surprisingly, the Sinn Féin vote strategy was inept. The Nationalist majority in FST should have enabled Gildernew to hold the seat with room to spare (whence the betting odds) but she failed to prod out the extra few hundred Nationalists that would have seen her home. Contrary to what Tom Elliott claimed, that seat is green and it ought to remain so given the demographics.

    The Unionist vote, bolstered by the efforts of the Orange Order, squeezed every last vote they could – indeed, what they got is their high water mark and I don’t expect them to hit it again. Sinn Féin, however, took the seat lightly and deservedly paid the price.

    The fault, therefore, lies in Sinn Féin’s vote strategy, not in an SDLP spoiler. The thousands of Nationalists in Fermanagh/South Tyrone who sat at home are who Sinn Féin needs to be worrying about.

    That being said, the seat is there for the taking in 2020 if, and only if, SF rectify their strategy and cease focusing on unrealistic targets like Upper Bann.

  • Cavignac

    This, in my view, is the last sting of the wasp. Unionism could only win this seat by uniting around one candidate and profiting from a split Nationalist vote that did not turn out in numbers sufficient to compensate for the presence of two candidates. Gildernew gained at the expense of a (no hoper) SDLP candidate but failed to get the right vote out, just.

    SF learnt from their vote mismanagment in Dublin in 2007 and, if history is an indicator, will have learnt their lesson here too. FST is unlikely to go Unionist again.

  • Cue Bono

    Apart from losing a seat to unionists you mean?

  • Cue Bono

    I was referring to the Westminster election in five years time Joe. The leadership of SF are largely eligible for a place in a Fold at the minute so it is inevitable that some of them will have keeled over by then.

    What you are describing is the morphing of SF into the SDLP.

  • tmitch57

    But Alliance unlike the ruling duopoly is hardly in a position to leverage its position and public largesse into power to use against its rivals.

  • james

    Well, there is Phil Flanagan though he is essentially a male clone of Gildernew. And has thus far in his political career come across as an obnoxious 14-year old boy. Don’t see that SF has any strength in depth in FST.

  • Carl Mark

    You stay classy,

  • james

    Yes but their voters will also be better educated, which can only be a bad thing for Sinn Fein.

  • Joe Walker

    I am sure that unionists hate Sinn Fein, but so what?

  • Joe Walker

    It was always going to be a difficult seat to hold onto regardless of who occupies it. Elliot will likely find it as difficult to hold onto.

  • Joe Walker

    Why? You think that better educated people are more likely to support British colonialism in Ireland?

  • Joe Walker

    I am sure that some of them will die or retire before the next election and be replaced. Sinn Fein is not turning into the SDLP because Sinn Fein seriously believes in a united Ireland. The SDLP only pretended to support Irish unification in order to get Catholic votes.

  • Joe Walker

    Actually the fault lies with Gildernew. She has never been a particularly inspiring candidate. Personally I have always believed that Sinn Fein ran her because she is a young woman and they wanted to look “progressive” to the media. Hopefully, the next Sinn Fein candidate for this seat will do a better job of motivating people to come out and vote.

  • Joe Walker

    But will he represent the interests of the nationalists and republicans of his constituency? If he acts as a hardline unionist he will just alienate Catholic voters and motivate them to come out and vote against him.

  • Joe Walker

    They just have to find someone who can beat Elliot. If Elliot operates as a hardline unionist then he should alienate enough Catholics that Sinn Fein won’t have too much difficulty in recapturing the seat.

  • Joe Walker

    Since she was already the sitting MP they really had no choice. Now that she is an ex-MP they can run someone else.

  • Sharon Robinson

    That was a terrible Unionist, Tom is premier league and commands respect amongst Unionism and some Nationalism across the constituency.

  • NMS

    I couldn’t resist it. I note the anniversary of his suicide past off this week with hardly a mention. Perhaps the loss of “his” seat is his ultimate epitaph.

  • kfc_gravy

    Really, premier league? Are you being ironic? Tom is surely hard working but lacks intelligence.

  • Sharon Robinson

    Smarter than given credit for and really has the common touch, worked his way up and that appeals to an awful lot of people.

  • james

    To my mind SF aren’t really focussed on finding candidates who are ‘good’. Stirring up sectarian hatred is how they normally boost the vote. I expect mire of their rabble rousing over the next while in FST.

  • james

    Less likely to be fooled by the SF publicity machine

  • shea_mus

    Right you are…

  • Joe Walker

    What do you mean by fooled? “Northern Ireland” throughout its entire existence has been a state run for the benefit of British colonists (i.e. the Protestants) at the expense of the native Irish (i.e. the Catholics).

  • james

    Oh really? Well I suggest you take your indignation out on the SF ministers currently assisting in running NI by witholding your vote. Must be terrible to always be the victim, and never in the wrong.

  • Joe Walker

    Why would I punish Sinn Fein? They, like me, want to see a united Ireland. If I were to punish anyone by withholding my vote, it would be the phonies of the SDLP.

  • Joe Walker

    It is usually the Unionists who stir up the sectarian hatred or have you already forgotten about the late Ian Paisley? It is the fact that unionists such as yourself consider the native Irish Catholics of the Six Counties to be rabble that has allowed Sinn Fein to become the dominant Irish nationalist party in the North.

  • james

    Well, no. I don’t consider the native Irish Catholics to be rabble, any more than I would consider the native Protestants as such. Again you are willfully trying to pretend that Catholic = supporter of terrorists, which I find offensive.

  • james

    SDLP want to see a UI, too. And if it ever does come about (I personally, for clarity, am not in favour), the SDLP would be the only party that could deliver it. Sinn Fein push it ever farther away with their antics. You know it, and I know it.

  • John Coyle

    “Sinn Fein have done remarkably little!”
    I don’t know about that.
    You should try coming down to FST sometime and running against them. Their canvassers seemed to be everywhere, their posters too. They got their vote out in amazing numbers, increasing it by 1,700 votes from 2010.
    They weren’t my voters either, I know that for a fact, the seven hundred votes I was down from Fearghal stayed at home.
    Sinn Fein weren’t complacent. It is simply that in the face of the UUP, DUP, TUV, UKIP, the Tories, the loyal orders and the “victim’s groups,” the forces of unionism got their vote out a little better than the Shinners.
    With over 51,000 people voting, a winning margin of 530 or less than one percent of the turn out, is a tiny margin.
    The Sinn Fein gits done amazing if you ask me. I wish the “team” I had behind me were half as energetic or committed.

  • Joe Walker

    The main thing stopping a united Ireland is the hundreds of thousands of British colonists living in the north of Ireland. Eradicate those colonists and a united Ireland would soon follow.

  • Joe Walker

    There are few if any native Protestants in the north of Ireland. The average Protestant in the Six Counties is descended from the British colonists who started coming to Ireland in the early 1600s. I don’t consider the IRA to be terrorists. The only terrorists in the north of Ireland are the loyalists, the British army and the PSNI/RUC.

  • james

    Interesting. Perhaps you could give us your definition of both the IRA and native.

  • james

    Eradicate? With Irish daleks supplied by the late Qadaffi, presumably?

  • Joe Walker

    Any thing that gets the British colonists out of Ireland is acceptable to me.

  • Joe Walker

    The IRA are made up of the native Irish population who fought to free Ireland from British colonial rule. The native Irish are the people whose ancestors were living in Ireland before the British colonists invaded.

  • james

    So you wouldn’t consider Gerry Adams native, then?