Election 2015 Northern Ireland

Narrow margins in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Lough Erne Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, pictured in 1981

It is more than 30 years since Bobby Sands was elected as an MP, but where politics is concerned time stands still in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

"I think it's very much back to 1981," says Bernie O'Connor, who played a role in helping to bring about Northern Ireland's most polarised election of recent times.

The school teacher persuaded the other nationalist candidate, Noel Maguire, to stand aside.

And then in a manoeuvre designed to outsmart Austin Currie, who promised to stand against the IRA hunger striker, he kept the news secret until five minutes before nominations closed thus ensuring the vote would not be divided.

Today he's preparing for battle again.

The sitting Sinn Féin MP, Michelle Gildernew, faces just one unionist challenger, Tom Elliott, while she is also competing for votes with the SDLP's John Coyle.

Image caption Unionist Harry West was defeated by Bobby Sands in 1981

For Bernie O'Connor there are strong echoes of the past.

He told The View on BBC One Northern Ireland: "I think it's very much back to the high percentage poll that we need to go out, because a vote not cast in this election is really a vote for Tom Elliott; a vote cast for the SDLP in this election is a vote for Tom Elliott.

"I think it is very much back to that again where people have got to come out and vote and show that what we stand for, we really mean here in this constituency."

For those depressed by the thought of things not moving on since the days of the hunger strikes, the antidote is supplied by former local newspaper editor Denzil McDaniel.

He says cross-community relationships in Fermanagh's county town, Enniskillen, are probably better than anywhere in Northern Ireland.

"People do get on throughout the county - good neighbours help each other out most times of the year," he says.

"It's just when it comes to politics they decide to put their 'X' in a particular way."

Image caption Frank McManus was the nationalist unity MP from 1970 to 1974

That way is either unionist or nationalist, orange or green, and Frank McManus, who was the nationalist unity MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone from 1970 to 1974, agrees.

"The first question is always, are you for the union or agin' the union, and fortunately the majority in Fermanagh and South Tyrone has always been agin' the union," he says.

"Now that doesn't mean that the nationalists have always won, because nationalists have become divided.

"If you add the votes of young Coyle and Michelle Gildnernew, certainly there'll be a majority.

"The question is will she get enough, or will he get few enough, to allow her to succeed?

"I very much hope she does succeed. I think she will, though I've spoken to a few people recently who would be supporters of hers and they say that the numbers aren't as good as they were."

Margin

Mr McManus says emigration could be a factor.

"All you've to do is look at Gaelic football teams where lots of young people have left for economic reasons," he says.

In 2010 the Ulster Unionists and the DUP backed a single candidate. Rodney Connor was a former chief executive of the local district council.

The gamble failed by just four votes, a margin subsequently reduced to a single vote by an electoral court.

So can Tom Elliott succeed where Rodney Connor so narrowly failed? Yes, according to the last unionist to win. Lord Maginnis held the seat as plain Ken Maginnis from 1983 until 1997.

"I've seen so many things happen vis-à-vis UUP/DUP that I've still got slight hang-ups about Peter Robinson's party (DUP), but having said that I don't see Fermanagh and South Tyrone in those terms," he says.

"I see Fermanagh and South Tyrone in terms of the 60,000 or 70,000 people that I represented, and you cannot effectively represent the interests of one section; Tom Elliott knows that.

"You represent the interests of the community and that's hard work. I think he's up for it."

Five candidates have so far announced they are standing in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the general election:

  • John Coyle of the SDLP
  • Tom Elliott of the Ulster Unionist Party
  • Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin
  • Tanya Jones of the Green Party
  • Hannah Su of the Alliance Party

The View was broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Thursday 2 April, and is available to watch on the iPlayer.

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