As 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.