Sam McBride: By-election result is warning shot across bows of DUP and Sinn Fein duopoly

With the result of the West Tyrone by-election never in doubt, the real barometer of any shift in public opinion here was always going to be about the vote which each party achieved.

Saturday, 5th May 2018, 9:27 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 5:35 pm
New MP Orfhlaith Begley, Sinn Fein, centre, pictured with Michelle O'Neill, left, and Mary-Lou McDonald at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Turnout was down significantly - entirely common for a by-election, but nevertheless a potential indication that the public sense of the increasing importance of politics in Northern Ireland last year amid the uncertainty of Brexit and the collapse of devolution may be waning slightly.

Although Sinn Féin’s new and relatively unknown candidate Órfhlaith Begley romped home with close to half the total vote, Sinn Féin’s majority was cut from 10,342 to 7,956.

However, given the fall in overall turnout a fairer comparison between last year and the by-election result is to examine each candidate’s percentage share of the vote.

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On that front, there is a clear picture: The two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, have lost ground, while the three smaller parties have made modest inroads into their larger rivals.

Of the smaller parties, the most impressive performance was by the SDLP’s Daniel McCrossan. In an area where over recent years the SDLP has been wracked by internal disputes and a seemingly relentless electoral slide - and against the backdrop of pessimism within the party where some senior figures have been briefing in recent weeks that the SDLP may disband to allow Fianna Fáil to move north - he increased the SDLP share of the vote by almost five percentage points.

Whether that was due to the way in which the by-election was called after the then MP Barry McElduff was seen to mock the victims of the Kingsmill massacre (something he denied) or as a reaction against Sinn Féin’s liberalising stance on abortion - which conservative activists had been raising in the constituency - is difficult to discern.

If it is the latter, it poses a conundrum for the SDLP, which is soon to meet to discuss the possibility of dropping its pro-life stance.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too much from a low-key by-election where the bookies’ odds of 1/100 were based on an implied probability of 99% that Sinn Féin would win the seat.

It is difficult though to disagree with the view of the psephologist Nicholas Whyte, who argued that while voters are continuing to back the two-party system of the DUP and Sinn Féin, this result is something of a warning shot across the bows of that political duopoly.