THREE years ago the Mid Ulster Westminster election did little to excite debate – largely because the result was never in question.
Martin McGuinness romped home with a West Belfast-esque majority of 15,363 for Sinn Fein, while his nearest challenger, the DUP’s Ian McCrea, saw his vote almost halve to 5,876 votes.
SDLP candidate Tony Quinn came third with 5,826 votes while the UUP’s Sandra Overend – standing for UCUNF – polled 4,509 votes. Outside Jim Allister’s north Antrim stronghold, the constituency emerged as the strongest area for the TUV, with Walter Miller taking 2,995 votes and it was the second-weakest area for Alliance, whose candidate Ian Butler polled just 397 votes.
Three years on – and after Mr McGuinness resigned as an MP to concentrate on being Deputy First Minister – few believe that the result of Thursday’s by-election will be anything other than a comfortable victory for Sinn Fein candidate Francie Molloy.
Yet the results of this contest will be pored over and could shape the future of unionism for years to come.
The decision by Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt to run a non-party unionist unity candidate – in the UUP leader’s words “an experiment” – gives the contest a significance it would otherwise lack. Though unionist candidate Nigel Lutton has chosen not to run a high-profile media campaign, the DUP and UUP have been canvassing the area since Mr Lutton was jointly selected by the two parties a fortnight ago.
The Orangeman and victims’ campaigner is something of an unknown quantity but his performance – with the backing of the DUP’s considerable electoral machine – will largely decide whether such joint unionist initiatives feature in the next round of elections.
Almost any unionist politician will say that at election time they are repeatedly told on pro-Union doorsteps that there should be some form of unionist unity.
That feeling is real, particularly among traditional unionists, but a significant minority of unionism – represented by the likes of John McCallister and Basil McCrea – argue that such a move is counterproductive and lowers the pro-Union vote.
Now that there has been an agreement across virtually all shades of unionism, that public demand for single unionist candidates will be put to the test.
The last time unionist unity was tried, in Fermanagh-South Tyrone three years ago, the candidate, Rodney Connor, famously came within four votes of unseating Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.
But the overall unionist vote dropped substantially, by 1,625 votes. That decline in the unionist vote alarmed some of those who had supported the move, such as local UUP MLA Tom Elliott, and last year Mr Nesbitt cited the fall in pro-Union support in that contest as an argument against unity candidates.
However, the DUP pointed out that although the vote declined, the candidate at least came within touching distance of victory, something which was impossible with two pro-Union candidates.
Turnout on Thursday is likely to be low. There are just four candidates – the SDLP is running local MLA Patsy McGlone and Alliance is standing retired headmaster Eric Bullick – and two years ago a by-election in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein enjoys a similarly unassailable lead, saw turnout slump from almost 55 per cent to 37.5 per cent.
Mid Ulster is a largely rural constituency and traditionally has a higher turnout than seats such as West Belfast. The novelty of a unionist unity candidate also means that turnout may be slightly bolstered, but it is still likely to be down from the 63.7 per cent who voted there three years ago.
The Census results released in recent weeks show that the constituency is 30.6 per cent Protestant, 58.6 Roman Catholic and 10.6 per cent other or non-declared. That means that if Mr Lutton is to come anywhere near victory he will have to attract significant Catholic support.
Though the result – expected within hours of the polls closing at 10pm on Thursday – is unlikely to be a surprise, it could have far-reaching ramifications for unionism.