West Tyrone result shows that a victim candidate might have won

The victorious Sinn Fein candidate �rfhlaith Begley with Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald but the party didn't poll all that well in their heartland. There was a defeatist sense that they were unassailable.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
The victorious Sinn Fein candidate �rfhlaith Begley with Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald but the party didn't poll all that well in their heartland. There was a defeatist sense that they were unassailable.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Now that the result is in from West Tyrone, we can better speculate on how a single victims’ candidate might have fared against Sinn Fein.

There was no push for such a candidate outside the Ulster Unionist Party, which was keen for one.

West Tyrone is the third most nationalist of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, after Foyle and West Belfast but ahead of Mid Ulster, South Down, and Newry & Armagh (as measured by the percentage of the overall vote that typically goes to the SDLP or Sinn Fein).

Sinn Fein’s vote in West Tyrone on Thursday was by far the highest of the five parties that stood, and it won the seat easily.

But its candidate, Órfhlaith Begley, and the DUP’s, Tom Buchanan, recorded a small but clear drop in their vote share (4.3% and 3.1% respectively).

The Ulster Unionist and SDLP candidates saw their party’s vote share increase by the amount that their main rivals fell.

The swing looks like a small protest against the DUP-Sinn Fein stalemate at Stormont.

It also challenges the notion that the relentless rise of the DUP and SF is so inevitable that the UUP and SDLP will ultimately vanish.

Perhaps the SDLP and UUP would not have declined as steeply as they have done in recent years if St Andrews had not changed how the first minister is chosen and the two biggest parties on either side of the tribal divide not been under extra pressure to outdo each other.

An assumption that Sinn Fein was untouchable in West Tyrone partly lay behind the lack of impetus to find a victims’ candidate.

Such a candidate was mooted in protest at the circumstances of the by-election, brought about by the resignation of Barry McElduff for balancing a Kingsmill loaf on his head on the anniversary of the IRA massacre there.

The defeatist belief that SF was unassailable was wrong.

If the DUP, UUP and Alliance had stood down in favour of such a candidate, it could have caused Sinn Fein major discomfort, even if the SDLP had not done so.

Had a victims’ candidate got all the DUP/UUP/A votes cast on Thursday, and, say, 1,000 of the SDLP votes, the tally would have been 16,346 Sinn Fein (46%), 13,429 Victim (41%), 5,254 SDLP (13%).

A prominent victim such as Ann Travers might have made even deeper inroads into the SDLP vote. Her sister Mary was murdered emerging from Mass as the IRA tried to kill her judge father. Ann backed the principle of a victim candidate but did not volunteer due to other commitments.

Weeks ago (see links below), when I criticised the failure to agree a victims’ candidate, I conceded that such a person would probably lose to SF, but said it might have been by a margin so close, perhaps 52% to 48%, as to embarrass republicans.

But Thursday’s result suggests that if the SDLP had stepped aside, a single victims’ candidate could have won. Sinn Fein got 16,346 votes, other parties 18,683.

A loss in West Tyrone would have rocked Sinn Fein to the core and forced them to think about their pro IRA triumphalism.

It is not hard to see why the DUP, Alliance and SDLP showed little interest in a victims’ candidate.

The DUP is keen to remain the visible lead party in unionism, and is not going to walk away from a high profile contest lightly.

Alliance seems to believe (not unreasonably) that Brexit is the biggest issue of the moment, so is hardly going to rush into anything that might smack of a pact with other parties that have an opposite view on UK withdrawal from the EU.

And the SDLP is a nationalist party that is trying to stay relevant in an increasingly polarised society. It would have been a very bold move to stand down against Sinn Fein.

There have always been people in that party who loathed the IRA, so some of them must realise that the rapid recasting of history to make the IRA look heroic is causing resentment across the Province.

West Tyrone was a rare chance for other parties to unite, and state that the reason for the by-election was so abhorrent as to call for a special response.

It is too late for that now, but if the other parties are sensitive to this bubbling public anger they might yet find an occasion to unite. But there is no sign of any such will.

Instead, incredibly, it is the party most linked to the IRA that is so cocky on legacy it has made the issue a non negotiable requirement for the return of Stormont, and it will probably get what it wants.

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

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