Ben Lowry: A single victims’ candidate in W Tyrone is an excellent idea

Sinn Fein would be likely hold West Tyrone, even against a single candidate, but if the latter had the full support of all the other parties and apolitical groups too, as a statement of abhorrence of paramilitary violence past and present, SF might struggle
Sinn Fein would be likely hold West Tyrone, even against a single candidate, but if the latter had the full support of all the other parties and apolitical groups too, as a statement of abhorrence of paramilitary violence past and present, SF might struggle

It has been suggested that a victims’ candidate stand against Sinn Fein in the coming West Tyrone by-election.

The seat has been vacated by Barry McElduff after his notorious Kingsmill loaf joke.

It is unlikely such a candidate will be agreed. The DUP has made cool noises about it, as have the centre parties and the SDLP. The only party that seems keen on the notion is the Ulster Unionist Party, whose leader Robin Swann suggested it.

Which is a pity, because it is an excellent proposal.

I think that such a candidate would ideally be a relative of one of the 300+ Catholic men and women murdered by the IRA.

The candidate could not then be dismissed as a sectarian unionist.

The candidate’s position on the constitutional question would not matter, because other parties would back the said person on one ground: that terror was unjustified.

Beyond that, the various parties supporting such a candidate would not need to agree. In fact it would be preferable if they did not agree: supporters of Irish unity, unionists, environmentalists, Brexiteers, Remainers, conservatives, feminists, Christians, humanists, whatever.

They would not agree on past culpability for Northern Ireland’s deep divisions either. But they would all agree that young people should not be fooled into thinking that decades of bloodshed, that greatly deepened the trenches in Northern Ireland, was reasonable – as is rapidly happening.

Such a candidate is necessary because of McElduff’s joke, but not in the way that might seem. The revulsion at his gag has come as the IRA continues to make strides in its long-term bid to win the historical narrative.

The McElduff controversy could actually heighten their success if people think ita turning point, and reflective of republican abhorrence of the murder of civilians.

Some naive people thought we had reached such a turning point when a Sinn Fein candidate expressed his sorrow at the unspeakable 1983 murder of the lecturer Edgar Graham (until this newspaper asked the candidate if he actually condemned that grievous crime and he only reiterated, with great emphasis, his sorrow – as if the death was as blameless as someone being killed by an avalanche).

McElduff is no turning point either: there is not a hint of SF regret or embarrassment at the overall IRA campaign, which was riddled with atrocities against civilians.

Quite the reverse: the political wing of the IRA is so cocky about legacy that it has brought Stormont to a halt partly on that basis – to get the approach to the past it wants.

Some old stalwarts of the SDLP and Alliance had such contempt for the violence they saw up close that I wonder if they would have countenanced radical measures, such as a single anti terror candidate, in the face of such cockiness. But younger people who vote for these parties know little of that violence.

A rarely told story of the last 20 years is that unionism, for all its supposed obduracy, largely endorsed something David Trimble said about former paramilitaries: Just because you have a past doesn’t mean you can’t have a future.

Things could be so different now if people felt republicans had even some humility about the past. If there was a sense that they wanted to leave it alone, that terrible things happened, that people got caught up in it, that it’s better to move on.

But no. They crow and celebrate, which is bad enough, but then, worse, sneer and demand accountability of others.

It is one reason why Stormont almost can’t return now. The anger at such triumphalist hypocrisy has pushed so far into ‘moderate’ territory that I think even Alliance was beginning to suffer in East Belfast because of the demand for a tough response to republican tactics.

A one-off way to register a stand against this would be a victims’ candidate in West Tyrone. Sinn Fein got 50.7% in the last Westminster election, and would only need to suffer a small drop to lose the seat.

SF will seek a palatable candidate and would likely hold the seat even against a single candidate. But it is conceivable they would not.

A victorious victims’ candidate could, like the anti sleaze former BBC reporter Martin Bell in Tatton 1997, serve only one term as MP. It would be the victory, based on one mandate, that would be the point.

The 1992 defeat of Gerry Adams in West Belfast by Joe Hendron is thought to have hastened the 1994 ceasefire. A West Tyrone defeat, or even a close result scare, could have long lasting ramifications too.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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