Who would have thought that Northern Ireland would supply the first by-election of the House of Commons elected in 2017? We haven’t had a lot of parliamentary by-elections of late – this is only the fourth this century, after Martin McGuinness’s resignation from neighbouring Mid Ulster in 2013, Gerry Adams’ resignation from West Belfast in 2011, and Clifford Forsythe’s death in 2000. Indeed, the only other by-election in the last thirty years was in 1995 in North Down, caused by the death of Sir James Kilfedder.
The West Tyrone Westminster seat has been held by Sinn Féin since 2001, with at least 42% of the vote at every election since 2005, peaking at 50.7% in the 2017 Westminster election. Of the five Assembly seats, three are held by Sinn Féin, one by the SDLP and one by the Democratic Unionist Party. On the last count of the 2017 Assembly election, Alicia Clarke of the UUP ended 760.45 behind SF’s Declan McAleer, with an undistributed SDLP surplus of 293.60 which probably have widened that gap; Unionism combined held less than a third of the vote.
The most likely outcome of the by-election is that local Sinn Féin activists will rally behind McElduff’s designated successor and get him or her elected. Their closest competitors on paper are the DUP, who were more than 10,000 votes behind McElduff in the Westminster election last year; for a Unionist to win, they would need to also absorb 2,000 UUP votes, and hope for the Nationalist vote to be splintered very evenly. The first of these may not be too difficult, depending on the discussions between the parties; the second is a tall order.
There are a couple of partial precedents. When the West Tyrone Westminster seat was first contested in 1997, SF were just behind the SDLP, by 14,280 votes for Pat Doherty to 14,842 for Joe Byrne. Both were beaten by the sole Unionist candidate, Willie Thompson of the UUP, who got 16,003 vote, 35%. But that lasted only four years; in 2001, Doherty got over 40%, Thompson’s vote share fell by 5% despite the absence of any other Unionist candidate, and the SDLP squeezed the middle ground hard but still came third out of three.
Independent candidate Kieran Deeney then pulled off two surprise Assembly election successes in 2003 and 2007 – on the latter occasion, he was outpolled by the combined vote of three SDLP candidates, but they failed to transfer to each other and he retained his seat. In between, he stood for Westminster in 2005 and got over 27% – still some way behind SF, but a very respectable result for an independent in this part of the world.
However, it’s most likely that that the abstentionist McElduff will have an abstentionist replacement, and the result won’t disturb the delicate parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster. More important will be the effect of the campaign on the local political impasse. It’s likely that both Sinn Féin and Unionism will hail the outcome as evidence that their respective electorates continue to endorse them. That’s fine, in terms of knowing where you are coming from; the task is to decide where you are going.
(Chart of recent West Tyrone election results by Conal Kelly)