General Election 2017: Will Foyle unionists boost SDLP?

The Peace Bridge in Londonderry
The Peace Bridge in Londonderry

Unionists in this overwhelmingly nationalist city must decide between tactical voting or a single unionist candidate with little chance of success, as Niall Deeney discovers in his profile of the Foyle constituency.

If there is a single location in Northern Ireland where the soul of Irish nationalism resides, the city of Londonderry is a strong candidate.

It is a city where, because of the simple fact of demographics, there is virtually zero chance of any unionist winning a seat in the House of Commons.

Its economic, social, geographic and cultural hinterland extends well across the border into Co Donegal in the Irish Republic.

For that reason Brexit looms large in Londonderry, where the vast majority of voters wished to remain in the EU.

It is the home of successive leaders of nationalism and republicanism in Northern Ireland – from Eddie McAteer through to Colum Eastwood via John Hume and Martin McGuinness.

In the coming weeks, a battle is ahead in Londonderry that could, because of its symbolic significance, provide a glimpse of the nationalist political landscape in the years to come.

If the SDLP is ever to realise its hopes of becoming once again the dominant voice of those who dream of a united Ireland, or perhaps even of maintaining its current secondary but still relevant and influential position, it must hold Londonderry.

The party had, until this year, never been beaten to the top of the poll ever since Foyle was created as a constituency in 1983.

Sinn Fein might have long ago eclipsed the SDLP across Northern Ireland as a whole, but Londonderry nationalists have largely remained steadfastly behind the more moderate of the two main pro-united Ireland parties.

That was the case for decades and remained so until March this year, when the votes were counted out at the Foyle Arena and it became clear something historic had taken place in the 2017 Assembly election.

The SDLP had found themselves in second place.

Elisha McCallion, a popular former Mayor and a young candidate with no Troubles-related baggage had, alongside former hunger striker Raymond McCartney, won a combined 16,350 first preference votes for Sinn Fein.

The SDLP, with party leader Colum Eastwood and former Stormont Minister Mark H Durkan on the ballot, had claimed just 14,188.

Whether Sinn Fein can repeat the trick in the General Election and dislodge the SDLP from what has been the safest of safe Westminster seats is the issue at stake in this election.

Where, then, does that leave unionists, of whom there are thousands living in Londonderry? Many will likely vote on a tactical basis for the SDLP, if previous trends hold true this time.

Alex Wilson, a car mechanic from the Waterside, told the News Letter that is exactly how he is considering using his vote.

“I would normally vote for the DUP but I want to keep Sinn Fein out,” he explained. “I know they (the DUP) can’t win it but at the same time I don’t even like the SDLP. I just don’t want the Shinners getting in. I don’t know.”

There is only one unionist standing, Gary Middleton of the DUP.

Mr Middleton said unionist voters should be cautious of “lending” their vote to any nationalist party.

“When people are pointing at voting totals and starting to call for border polls and the like, it is important to put down a marker, a pro-Union vote for a pro-Union party,” he said.

Former Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan has held the seat for the SDLP since 2005.

He significantly increased the margin of his victory last time around, defeating Sinn Fein’s Gearóid Ó hEára by over 6,000 votes, compared to the 4,824 votes that separated Mr Durkan and the 2011 Sinn Fein challenger Martina Anderson.

This time, he faces the challenge of the city’s most popular candidate in the Assembly election.

It is the battle between Elisha McCallion and Mark Durkan that will decide the election in Foyle – but it is not the SDLP versus Sinn Fein that is on many people’s minds.

Every day, people from Londonderry cross the border to work in the hospitality industry, engineering plants and filling stations dotted along the dividing line between Co Donegal and Londonderry.

One such worker is Michael McLaughlin, a man in his early 20s, employed in a bar in Letterkenny.

“It’d be a nightmare if the border came in,” he said.

“Half my family are in Donegal. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know what I don’t want and that’s a whole handling getting to work or going to down to see the ones on my Ma’s side (of the family).”

Alongside people like Mr McLaughlin, every day, employers in Londonderry welcome commuters from Donegal into their places of work.

Brexit is high on the priorities of both front runners.

Elisha McCallion said: “They estimate that somewhere in the region of 30,000 people cross the border on a daily basis, whether that’s for education or employment across the North. It’s going to have huge implications for them, even in their daily travel.More significant than that is going to be the economic implications.”

Mark Durkan told a similar story when asked about Brexit: “Let’s remember Derry would be 78 per cent remain and that’s understandable given our location here, right on the border.

“It’s a city whose economic hinterland has been affected historically and structurally by the fact of the border.

“It’s a city which has then benefited from the reduction in the profile of the border. People obviously worry about incipient borderism returning to economic and administrative life here.”

He added: “Brexit, of course, can intrude and obtrude in the natural economic, social life of this region in a way that could be highly disruptive and hold us back. There are even challenges at the minute for cross-border workers.”

Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein advocate for some form of designated special status for Northern Ireland within the EU.

If Brexit is the issue on everyone’s minds, and both parties are so strident in their opposition, what is there to separate the two leading candidates in Londonderry?

Financial journalist Paul Gosling, an economics expert from England who has been living in Londonderry for some time, shares his thoughts.

“The election in Foyle won’t be decided by Brexit,” he said.

“The issue, if the election becomes close, more obviously from the SDLP’s point of view, will be that Sinn Fein don’t take their seats.”

“The other issues are about the economy. Foyle has the lowest employment rate, the highest unemployment rate, of anywhere in the UK.”

The question is what role an MP would take in terms of improving skills and infrastructure.

He added: “As an outsider who’s lived here for 17 years, what people don’t realise is the extent to which the West is a different place and the North West is one which has not had the economic benefits of the recovery.”