Unionist pact aims to replicate victory over resurgent SF

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The sprawling and idyllic setting of Fermanagh and South Tyrone is not only Northern Ireland’s largest constituency, but also one of the most hotly contested.

This south-western seat, which stretches from the River Bann and Lough Neagh in the west to Lough Erne and the Donegal border in the east, has produced a slew of dramatic election headlines down through the years.

DUP will not field a candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone, as Tom Elliott chosen to defend his Westminster seat

DUP will not field a candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone, as Tom Elliott chosen to defend his Westminster seat

Back in 1981, hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected MP, followed after his death by his election agent Owen Carron.

In more recent times, dramas have included Sinn Fein’s four-vote victory over independent unionist ‘unity’ candidate Rodney Connor in the 2010 general election.

The constituency is currently held by former UUP leader Tom Elliott, who defied the pundits back in 2015 by unseating Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew in a razor-edged contest.

The Orangeman topped the poll with 23,608 votes – more than 500 ahead of Mrs Gildernew - in a shock result which was hailed as unionism’s greatest victory in a decade.

Michelle Gildernew is seeking to win back Fermanagh South Tyrone for Sinn Fein

Michelle Gildernew is seeking to win back Fermanagh South Tyrone for Sinn Fein

Mr Elliot’s dramatic win encapsulated the strong election that unionism enjoyed in 2015.

The main problem the 53-year-old cattle farmer now faces is the surge in nationalism in his constituency, which saw Sinn Fein secure three seats and the DUP lose its party chairman Lord Maurice Morrow at the snap Assembly poll in March.

Should this momentum continue for republican party, the UUP’s 500-vote cushion could easily be overturned.

In a repeat of the 2015 Westminster election battle in this constituency, a unionist electoral pact has seen the DUP stand aside to allow Mr Elliott a free run against Sinn Fein.

No pact between Sinn Fein and the SDLP has been agreed, but a sizeable number of SDLP voters could vote tactically for Mrs Gildernew – who held the seat from 2001-2015 – rather than allow the unionist initiative to succeed.

Speaking to the News Letter at his family farm on the outskirts of Ballinamallard, Mr Elliot described a vote for Sinn Fein as “a waste, given that their MPs do not take up their seats at Westminster”.

He added: “I am hoping people realise they are better off with representation at Westminster, particularly when it comes to issues such as Brexit.”

With Fermanagh and South Tyrone having the longest border with the Irish Republic out of all 18 constituencies, Mr Elliot said getting a good deal out of Brexit was vital.

But he also described the UK’s split from Brussels as an “opportunity” for businesses owners and the farming community.

He added: “With any change comes opportunity. The business people I have been speaking to accept that while it is not going to be all easy going, they see being close to the border as a huge opportunity.

“They could have a base within the UK and also a base within the European Union just down the road, so they are already seeing potential opportunities in that.”

Asked how farmers in Northern Ireland would cope with the loss of £260m worth of subsidies they currently receive from Europe, Mr Elliot said: “The Single Farm Payment is only guaranteed until 2020 anyway, regardless if we remained in the EU or not .

“What happens after that is unpredictable and will be unsettling for some people.

“What I am getting from UK government is that they are going to try and devolve this issue as much as possible, so that means it will be up to the NI Executive, if it is up and running, to formulate the policy for any future support payments and to deliver on those.”

On the canvas trail, Mr Elliot said Brexit was not weighing heavily on the minds of most people, adding that constituents are more interested in bread and butter issues such as health and education.

He added: “By far the biggest issue raised by people on the doors is health. Waiting lists are so long there is hardly a family that is not affected in some form or another.”

Mr Elliot highlighted that hospitals in his constituency were relying heavily on locums, adding: “These are very expensive and there is no future proofing in that.

“What hospitals here really need is to be able to get their additional surgeons and other medical staff, so they can have a stable situation and provide for more elective surgery.

“I’m not saying there is enough money to go around, but if we can get a situation where it is managed better and goes to proper areas, then I think we will have a better system.”

Asked whether he believed people should start paying for health care in a bid to stem the crisis in the National Health Service, Mr Elliot said: “I wouldn’t like to see a situation where just because you can afford an operation means you should get it before someone else.”

For former agriculture minister Mrs Gildernew, the issue of Brexit is at the top of the agenda in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The Sinn Fein candidate added: “As a border constituency, Brexit is a huge issue in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and people realise how disastrous it would be.”

Mrs Gildernew said her party had put forward “a credible alternative” to Brexit with its case for the province to secure designated special status within the EU.

She added: “There is clearly widespread concern over Brexit across the constituency and I am hearing that on the doorsteps and when I engage with the local community.”

When quizzed on what other issues voters have flagged up, Mrs Gildernew said: “Obviously people are concerned about health, education and the economy and are worried about the impact of the Tory austerity agenda and Brexit.

“People want the political institutions restored but only on the basis of equality, integrity and respect and which deliver for all.”

Both the DUP and UUP have been highly critical of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy during their election campaigns, branding a vote for the republican party as “pointless”.

But Mrs Gildernew responded: “Anyone who believes that the intermittent attendance of a handful of MPs from the north on the green benches of Westminster makes any difference at all is kidding themselves.

“They failed to stop Brexit and they haven’t stopped a single Tory cut to our public services.”

Mrs Gildernew also addressed claims by her party colleague, John O’Dowd, that the SDLP were fielding “spoiler candidates” in a number of constituencies, including Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

She told the News Letter: “Sinn Fein spoke to the other parties who are opposed to Brexit in order to maximise the anti-Brexit, pro-equality vote but this was rejected.

“We are standing on our platform of equality, rights and Irish unity with a clear message that we are against Brexit, a border and Tory cuts.”