The notion of fielding a “non-partisan” candidate on behalf of Troubles victims to try and seize Barry McElduff’s former seat off Sinn Fein has been dubbed an “imaginative” and “worthwhile” idea by a prominent campaigner.
Michael Gallagher, a spokesman for people left bereaved by the Real IRA’s 1998 Omagh bomb, was speaking out after the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party appeared to propose that some kind of agreed independent figure could be chosen in a fight to take over the West Tyrone parliamentary seat, which was vacated by Mr McElduff yesterday.
The erstwhile MP quit 10 days after sparking a furore by posting a video of himself balancing a loaf of Kingsmills bread on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmills massacre, when republican gunmen fatally shot 10 Protestants in south Armagh.
Mr McElduff has denied that he had been intentionally mocking the massacre, but in his resignation statement he also acknowledged that this is widely disbelieved.
He said that continuing in his role as MP for West Tyrone “will compound that sense of hurt and impede any reconciliation process”.
The resignation raises the prospect of a by-election in the constituency, where Sinn Fein took over half the vote last time.
Robin Swann, UUP leader, said he was “calling for a non-partisan candidate who will be a voice for victims to contest this seat against Sinn Fein”.
The UUP was asked to elaborate further on what Mr Swann envisaged, but had not offered any more details at time of writing.
Omagh man Michael Gallagher, 67, who lost his son Aiden in the 1998 bomb, said such an idea could prove “a breath of fresh air”, and was “very imaginative”.
He said it is something that, to his mind, should have “cross-party support” – including the SDLP – adding: “There will be a lot of opposition. Generally the parties want to have their own man as it were.
“That doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Sinn Fein, DUP, UUP, SDLP or Alliance. These are party machines. They want to have control and manage that.
“By having an independent, impartial person, they’re going to lose control ...
“I think it’s a difficult one to sell to the parties, but maybe not as difficult to the people.
“A huge chunk of the people in this part of the world are voting for Sinn Fein.
“In order to overturn that, you’d need to be an extraordinary candidate, and you’d need to be in a position to reach out to those people you wouldn’t naturally aspire to, that wouldn’t naturally support you.”
He said it would be “a big ask” to unite the UUP, SDLP, and the DUP around the issue, but that “I still think it’s something worth exploring; I think it’s a change from the run-of-the-mill politics that we’ve had”.
He went on to add that he himself views as a “red herring” Mr McElduff’s claim that he did not connect the Kingsmill bread to the massacre of the same name when he made the video.
Mr Gallagher, however, was sceptical about how much damage the episode may do to the Sinn Fein vote in West Tyrone – when asked if it may damage the local party machine, he said: “Sadly, I don’t, because people have very short memories.”
However, he added: “This will be the anvil that Sinn Fein will be hammered over for years to come, especially when they talk about equality.”
He said Sinn Fein were “seasoned opponents” with “everything in their favour” in the constituency.
But if the plan for an independent victims’ candidate suceeded, it could “give voice to the victims – they’d have a champion fighting on their behalf”.
Speaking about the idea of a pact to pit other parties against Sinn Fein, DUP MP Gregory Campbell said nobody should do anything that allows those in the republican party to “present themselves as somehow the victim... that ‘they’re all out to get us’”.