The hardest-fought seat in Northern Ireland looks set to remain a “knife-edge” battle between unionists and Sinn Fein, after officials rolled back on plans for a radical revamp of its borders.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which in recent general elections has swung between unionists and republicans, looks set to be largely unchanged under the revised blueprints released this week by the Boundary Commission, according to UUP MLA for the area Rosemary Barton.
An earlier draft of the plans had suggested that a great swathe of south-west Tyrone would become part of the constituency – a move which may have tipped the demographic balance in the seat towards united Ireland candidates.
According to the 2011 census, 57.7% of people in the current constituency are Catholic or have Catholic backgrounds, whilst the same figure for Protestants is 39.1%.
Nonetheless, the fight to represent the seat at Westminster is so finely-pitched that in 2010 Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein beat independent unionist Rodney Connor literally by four votes.
The fact the Boundary Commission has now redrafted its plans, leaving the constituency largely unchanged, is something of a reprieve as far as unionists go indicated Mrs Barton (who represents the constituency in the Assembly alongside DUP leader Arlene Foster and three Sinn Fein MLAs).
“I think it’ll continue on a knife-edge,” she said, adding that the previous draft of the plans would “obviously” have hurt unionists’ chances.
Under the fresh blueprints the seat will take in a small new area of Mid Ulster (which she said is mixed), and lose a little tranche of its eastern flank to Upper Bann and Newry & Armagh (a tranche which she also said is mixed) – but the net result will be little change in the demographics.
“It could go either way [at a general election],” she said.
“That’s something we’ve been accepting of, and asking for – to keep Fermanagh and South Tyrone basically as it was. And that’s been mostly what has happened.
“I think what we’ve got has been reasonably fair, and has caused as little disruption as possible.”
In general terms, unionists have been quite cautious about commenting on the overall proposals.
Despite the fact that the plans officially released last week had been accidentally published by the Boundary Commission a week early, so have been public knowledge since the middle of the month, the DUP in particular remains reluctant to offer much firm comment when it comes to the big picture.
By contrast Sinn Fein has repeatedly described the newly-published plans as “gerrymandering”, with Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy saying: “The impact of these changes will be most keenly felt in Assembly elections where there will be four constituencies with no nationalist representation whatsoever.
“That is in stark contrast to the fact that there will be unionist representation in every constituency in the north.”
However, elections expert Nicholas Whyte said: “I note some complaints that this is a DUP stitch-up. There is not much evidence for that.”
He said the plans mean that Sinn Fein “remain in the strongest position in all seven seats that they won in 2017”, whilst the four newly-created seats – namely ‘Causeway’, ‘Mid Antrim’, ‘South Antrim’ and ‘Mid Down’ – would be “strongly DUP seats... as were the five seats that they replace”.
Keeping four seats in Belfast (as opposed to the three mooted in an earlier draft of the Boundary Commission plans) means the DUP may be slightly better positioned to hold its three Westminster seats in the city, and likewise for East Antrim and Upper Bann, whilst the party may also seize the newly-revamped North Down seat off independent Lady Hermon.
However, Dr Whyte added: “I’d still be surprised if the DUP back this revised map. They have made it pretty clear that their problem is with Northern Ireland losing a seat, and on any reasonable projection of last year’s results onto this year’s proposals, that lost seat is one of theirs.”
Even putting the DUP’s potential objections aside, he said Tory rebels opposed to the plans may vote against them just to give the government “a kick in the pants”.
“So,” he added, “this entire process may turn out to be an exercise in number crunching that has no practical effect.”