N. Ireland Politics

General election 2017: Small margins in border constituency battle

Farmers at Lisnaskea livestock market
Image caption Brexit and the Irish border are key issues in Fermanagh and South Tyrone election fight

In a packed livestock market in a County Fermanagh town on a Tuesday lunchtime farmers are buying and selling cattle.

It is noisy and busy in Lisnaskea mart, and against the backdrop of the auctioneer's excited tones all eyes are on the ring.

On the margins of the large crowd there is a familiar face.

Tom Elliott is a part-time farmer and a full-time politician and he is no stranger to the area.

Image caption Tom Elliott believes he has the competitive edge required to retain the seat for unionism

For the past two years the Ulster Unionist has travelled to Westminster to represent Fermanagh and South Tyrone as its MP and he wants to continue that job.

He took the seat off Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew in one of the surprise results of the 2015 general election.

The constituency is now being targeted by Sinn Féin and once again Michelle Gildernew is the party's candidate.

Like the last election, Mr Elliott has the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice.

Image caption Fermanagh and South Tyrone is the UK's most westerly constituency

He knows he is in a big fight to retain the seat.

"I am a competitive person by nature, whether that's in business, whether it's when I was playing football or whether it's now in politics," he said.

"I like that competition and I just get on with it."

Mrs Gildernew had the job for 14 years and hopes to get it back again.

Image caption Michelle Gildernew is looking to win back the Westminster seat she lost in 2015

She said interest in the election is high and the result will be very close.

"On track record it will probably come will down to a fairly narrow margin," she added.

"People are very exercised and up for this election."

If Mrs Gildernew wins next month, she will not take her seat at Westminster, in line with her party's policy.

Image caption Sinn Féin's policy of not taking its Westminster seats means its MPs are "irrelevant", says Mary Garrity

The Social Democratic and Labour Party's Mary Garrity, who is a councillor, is also hoping to be the next MP and she insists that Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy does not work.

"When an MP does not go to their work they are not an MP," she said.

"By not going you become irrelevant.

"If you are not in effect working for the people, you are useless."

The Alliance Party's Noreen Campbell and the Green Party's Tanya Jones are also on the ballot paper.

Image caption The constituency battle will simply be a "sectarian headcount", according to Rodney Edwards

Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a rural, border constituency and Brexit, jobs and fracking are all campaign talking points.

But away from the issues people see the contest as a two-horse race, according to Rodney Edwards, a journalist with the Impartial Reporter newspaper.

"Tom Elliott won this seat last time by just over 500 votes; he won it against the odds," said Mr Edwards.

"He can win it again because he has the backing of other unionists in the area.

"Equally, Michelle Gildernew could win it again and we have seen she has been capable of winning it against a single unionist candidate."

Image caption The constituency has always been keenly contested, with victory and defeat separated by narrow margins

In the townlands of Tyrone and in the lakelands of Fermanagh, politics runs deep.

Tradition and history are never far away from the surface.

This is the seat once held by republican hunger striker Bobby Sands and there has been plenty of drama and controversy in the past, marked by recounts and legal challenges.

At election time the cliché of "every vote counts" is often used, but in the UK's most westerly constituency that saying rings true.

It is a seat that once again may be won by the slimmest of margins.