The seemingly never-ending story of Fermanagh and South Tyrone continues. The latest episode is that Rodney Connor, the defeated unionist unity candidate has launched a legal challenge over the result, by asking the Election Court in Belfast to review the election.
Although it is relatively rare for such a review to be requested, it is not surprising that it is FST that is the subject.
FST is a closely contested constituency, and has been one since its creation in 1948.
The first election in the new constituency was on 23 February 1950, and FST quickly established its exceptionality by recording a turnout rate record – 92.1%. The election was a straight battle between the veteran nationalist Cahir Healy (who stood as an abstentionist) and the unionist Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Richardson. Healy won, with 32,188 votes (51.9%) to Richardson's 29,877 (48.1%).
In 1951 another Westminster election was held, on 25 October 1951, and Healy won again – against the unionist candidate Frederick Patterson. Healy received 32,717 votes (52.1%) and
Patterson received 30,082 (47.9%). FST broke its own turnout record, with 93.4% of the electorate voting.
Sinn Féin contested the Westminster election that was held on 26 May 1955, and won – but with a smaller vote than Healy had previously received. Philip Clarke (SF) won 30,529 votes (50.2%) against the unionist candidate Colonel Robert Grosvenor who received 30,268 votes (49.8%). The turnout dropped to a still-remarkable 92.4%.
Clarke was a controversial candidate, having been captured less than a year earlier in an IRA raid on Omagh barracks (in a pre-operation for the planned border campaign). Clarke was declared ineligible due to his imprisonment and the Unionist runner-up was declared elected without a by-election.
The IRA's Operation Harvest (aka the border campaign) started in 1956, and would continue until 1962. It was a military failure, but a political disaster. The Westminster election held during the campaign, on 8 October 1959, saw Sinn Féin being wiped out in FST. Grosvenor, the sitting unionist (who had received the seat following the exclusion of Philip Clarke in 1955) received 32,080 votes (81.4%), while Sinn Féin's candidate, James Martin received a paltry 7,348 votes (18.6%). Although the turnout rate (61.6%) implied that most nationalists simply boycotted the election, Grosvenor actually received votes equivalent to more than 50% of the entire electorate – the first and only time such a thing has happened in FST, and implying that some nationalists had actually voted for a unionist in an apparent emphatic rejection of the IRA's campaign. It would be 1970 before the nationalist vote in FST would fully recover.
The next Westminster election, on 15 October 1964, came after the end of the border campaign, but the voters had not yet forgiven Sinn Féin. The new unionist candidate, James Hamilton received 30,010 votes (55.1%), while the Sinn Féin candidate Aloysius Molloy – who, since Sinn Féin was by then a proscribed organisation, called himself simply 'republican' – received 16,138 votes (29.6%). For the first time in FST 'other' candidates stood: Giles Fitzherbert (Liberal) got 6,006 votes (11.0%) and Baptist W Gamble (NILP) got 2,339 (4.3%). The turnout, still respectable, dropped to 85.9%.
By 1966, FST had already started to innovate with 'unity' candidates. In the Westminster election on 31 March 1966 the first such candidate – on the nationalist side – JJ Donnelly, managed to get beaten by the unionist incumbent James Hamilton, who got 29,352 votes (54.0%) to Donnelly's 14,645 votes (26.9%). Donnelly's score was not helped by the fact that he was not the only nationalist in the race (despite his description): a certain Ruairí Ó Brádaigh stood as a 'republican' (i.e. Sinn Féin), and got 10,370 votes (19.1%). Already chief of staff of the IRA, he would go on to become president of Sinn Féin and of his own Republican Sinn Féin party.
In 1970 the nationalist tactic of standing a 'unity' candidate finally paid off. Eight years after the end of the border campaign, the whole 'nationalist' (aka Catholic) electorate was prepared again to vote for a nationalist candidate. On 18 June 1970 Frank McManus, standing for Unity, received 32,813 votes (51.1%), beating the unionist incumbent, James Hamilton who got 31,390 votes (48.9%). The turnout rose again, to 91.2%.
However, as so often in FST, there were swings and roundabouts. In 1974 the new SDLP, buoyed by its success in the 1973 Assembly elections, contested the constituency, splitting the vote and letting the UUP candidate take the seat.
On 28 February 1974 Harry West, standing for the UUP-UUUC got 26,858 votes (43.6%), while Frank McManus got only 16,229 votes (26.3%). Denis Haughey, for the SDLP, got 15,410 votes (25.0%), and Hubert Brown, standing as a Pro-Assembly Unionist, got 3,157 votes (5.1%). McManus went on to become one of the founding members of the Irish Independence Party (IIP) in 1977.
But, remember those swings and roundabouts. A second election was held in 1974, on 10 October 1974, and this time the SDLP seems to have learned something, because they didn't stand. Instead nationalism found another unity candidate, Frank Maguire, who won the seat back with 32,795 votes (51.8%). Harry West received 30,285 votes (47.9%), which was about the limit of the unionist electorate in the constituency. Alan Evans for the Communist Party of Ireland got 185 votes (0.3%).
Frank Maguire was re-elected at the next election, on 3 May 1979, despite the intervention again of an SDLP candidate. Luckily for Maguire, the unionist vote was also split. He got 22,398 votes (36.0%), followed by the UUP's Raymond Ferguson on 17,411 votes (28.0%), Austin Currie, standing as 'Independent SDLP' on 10,785 votes (17.3%), Ernest Baird for the UUUP on 10,607 votes (17.0%), and, for the first time, an Alliance Party candidate, Peter Acheson on 1,070 votes (1.7%)
Maguire died in 1981 – at probably the most (in)convenient moment possible – right in the middle of the IRA/INLA hunger strikes. The rest is history – but is still fresh and raw in FST. Bobby Sands stood from his hospital bed, and won the seat, providing an immense boost to republican morale, and a huge propaganda victory for Sinn Féin. Much of the bitterness in the constituency's elections dates from this moment.
On 9 April 1981 the by-election was held to replace Frank Maguire. Sands, standing as an Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner candidate (but, as a convicted IRA-man, clearly a republican), and received 30,493 votes (51.2%). The UUP candidate (and former short-lived MP in 1974), Harry West got 29,046 votes (49.8%). The SDLP chose not to stand, and with a turnout of 86.9%, its supporters clearly voted for Sands.
What is especially curious about this result was that it demonstrated an almost complete reversal in the attitude of the nationalist voters in the constituency vis-à-vis the border campaign. In the late 1950s and 1960s the vote for any form of nationalism suffered greatly – presumably from a reaction against the border campaign. That campaign, though controversial, was nothing like the IRA's all-out war in the 1970s – and yet in 1981 the nationalist voters of FST were prepared to vote massively for a known IRA man.
There was some element of resistance, of course. The number of spoiled votes – 3,280 – was far higher than normal, and the proportion of the electorate that voted for Sands (42.2%) was somewhat lower than the 45-46% that nationalism had been receiving in recent elections. However, the size of nationalism's lead over unionism ensured that Sands won.
Sands died on hunger strike, of course, and so another by-election was held to replace him, on 20 August 1981. His agent, Owen Carron, stood on the same Anti-H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner platform, and again won with 31,278 votes (49.1%), while Ken Maginnis for the UUP got 29,048 votes (45.6%). Alliance send down one of their big guns to try to bring civilisation to the wild west – Seamus Close got 1,930 votes (3.0%), but failed to inspire any Alliance revival in the constituency. Other odds-and-sods pointlessly jumped on the bandwagon – Tom Moore, for the Republican Clubs got 1,132 votes (1.8%), Martin Green, describing himself as General Amnesty got 249 votes (0.4%), and Simon Hall-Raleigh, describing himself as The Peace Lover got 90 votes (0.1%). Obviously the people of FST were not lovers of peace!
Carron never intended to take his seat, of course – he represented the strong abstentionist tradition in FST. It is interesting to note that the unionist vote in the two 1981 by-elections differed by precisely two votes – 29,046 in April, and 29,048 in August. This was clearly the utter limit of unionism's electorate in the constituency. It has never received so many votes since.
On 9 June 1983 the SDLP came again to unionism's assistance. In the Westminster election they stood again, and thus split the nationalist vote. Ken Maginnis then won the seat for the UUP with 28,630 votes (47.6%), while Owen Carron, standing now openly for Sinn Féin, got 20,954 votes (34.8%). Rosemary Flanagan, for the SDLP, got 9,923 votes (16.5%) and Davy Kettyles made his first appearance in a Westminster election, standing this time for the Workers' Party and getting 649 votes (1.1%).
Something seems to have snapped in the nationalist psyche at this point. Despite outpolling unionism, and achieving over 50% of the vote, nationalism appears to have become severely demoralised by its defeat in 1983. This allowed unionism, despite its downward trend, to outpoll nationalism in the four following contests. Around 5,000 voters, who had previously voted nationalist, stopped doing so. Around half started to vote for the perennial Davy Kettles in one of his various guises, or other small parties. But the other half just opted out.
On 23 January 1986, in the set of by-elections caused by the unionist protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Ken Maginnis was re-elected with 27,857 votes (49.7%), despite the active participation of nationalist candidates (unlike in most other seats, where nationalists boycotted these by-elections – in Newry and South Armagh, however, Séamus Mallon snatched the seat from the unfortunate Jim Nicholson). Nationalism was split in FST, though, and Owen Carron got only 15,278 votes (27.2%), with Austin Currie (standing officially for the SDLP this time) getting 12,081 votes (21.5%). Davy Kettyles, still with the Workers' Party, got 864 votes (1.5%). The turnout was a low 80.9%, implying that neither side had really motivated their supporters.
On 11 June 1987, with an almost identical turnout (80.8%) in the general election Ken Maginnis retained the seat with 27,446 votes (49.6%). Carron, now on the run, was replaced as Sinn Féin candidate by Paul Corrigan, who got 14,623 votes (26.4%), while Rosemary Flanagan for the SDLP got 10,581 votes (19.1%) and Davy Kettyles, still WP, got 1,784 votes (3.2%). The Alliance Party, on another of its forays west, got 941 votes (1.7%) with John Haslett.
Nationalist – or more accurately, republican – demoralisation was approaching its nadir in FST in 1992. On 9 April 1992 Ken Maginnis walked home with 26,932 votes (48.4%), and unionists must have started thinking that this seat was theirs for ever more. Tommy Gallagher, for the SDLP, came in second with 12,810 votes (23.1%), and Sinn Féin managed only a third place, with Francie Molloy on 12,604 votes (22.9%). Davy Kettyles, now a 'Progressive Socialist', got 1,094 votes (1.9%), Eric Bullick, for the Alliance Party, got 950 votes (1.6%), and one of Kettyles erstwhile comrades, Gerry Cullen, standing for 'New Agenda' (a break-away from the Workers Party, and itself to become Democratic Left before merging with the (Irish) Labour Party) got 747 (1.2%).
In the 1995 boundary revision the constituency lost the heavily nationalist Coalisland area to Mid Ulster, thus reducing nationalism's hopes of recovering the seat, and probably reducing nationalist morale still further.
On 1 May 1997 Ken Maginnis again held 'his' seat, with 24,862 votes (51.5%), but Sinn Féin at least managed to overtake the SDLP – Gerry McHugh got 11,174 votes (23.1%), while Tommy Gallagher of the SDLP was close behind on 11,060 votes (22.9%). Stephen Farry, for the Alliance Party, got 977 votes (2.0%), and Simeon Gillan wasted a deposit for the Natural Law Party, getting 217 votes (0.5%). Turnout (74.8%) was slipping, though, perhaps reflecting a lessening of the tensions of earlier elections.
However, those FST swings and roundabouts should never be forgotten. On 7 June 2001 Sinn Féin dramatically won the seat by 53 votes. Michelle Gildernew got 17,739 votes (34.1%), but thanks to the intervention of an independent unionist the UUP candidate James Cooper got only 17,686 votes (34.0%). Tommy Gallagher of the SDLP got 9,706 votes (18.7%), which would ordinarily have been enough to ensure a unionist victory, but nobody foresaw the significant increase in the nationalist vote – from 22,234 in 1997 to 27,445 in 2001. Jim Dixon, the Independent Unionist, got 6,843 votes (13.2%) - and the life-long disapproval of the other unionists.
The increase in the nationalist vote appeared to mark the end of the nationalist demoralisation in FST. The turnout recovered, to 79.0%, and this appears to have been entirely due to nationalists returning to the polling booths – the unionist vote declined slightly.
The reason for the end of nationalist demoralisation is as little-known as that for its beginning. Perhaps the Good Friday Agreement electrified nationalism – but it was already three years old in 2001, and already experiencing unionist obstructiveness. In any case, despite the return to nationalism of a proportion of the electorate, the general tendency, in nationalism as in unionism, was towards apathy. The graph berlow shows the nationalist and unionist shares of the electorate (i.e. all of those eligible to vote):
On 5 May 2005 Michelle Gildernew retained the seat in a four-way race. Both nationalism and unionism had split votes. Gildernew got 18,638 votes (38.2%), the DUP's Arlene Foster got 14,056 votes (28.8%), the UUP's Tom Elliott got 8,869 votes (18.2%) and the SDLP's Tommy Gallagher got 7,230 votes (14.8%). The nationalist-unionist split widened slightly, to 53%/47%.
After the 2005 elections the boundary commission changed some constituencies, but left FST unchanged.
In 2010 unionists in FST had learned a valuable lesson – if they split their vote, they could never win the seat. Sinn Féin's lead amongst nationalists was greater than that of either of the unionist parties within their block. So an intense effort was made to 'resolve' this problem on the unionist side. There were early offers by the DUP to stand aside in favour of a unity candidate, but the UCUNF project had announced that it intended to stand in every seat, regardless of other factors. As the election campaign progressed, there were increasingly desperate attempts by the DUP to break the UCUNF resolve. The fact that the UUP's main standard-bearer in the constituency appeared not to share UCUNF's determination to stand gave it support. And, of course, that campaign worked – UCUNF backed down, and Tom Elliott, the wavering UUP man, was pivotal in helping to select a 'unionist unity' candidate – Rodney Connor – who was a member of neither party, and critically, not a member of UCUNF. His selection made liars out of the Tories, and possibly helped to repel almost as many voters elsewhere as he attracted in FST.
And, of course, the rest is history. Despite 'unionist unity' against a divided nationalism, Gildernew won. The nationalist voters in FST were determined not to be outmanoeuvred by the unionist minority, and plumped for Gildernew, giving her a 4 vote majority – the subject of Connor's current legal challenge.
The result on 6 May 2010 was Michelle Gildernew 21,304 votes (45.5%), Rodney Connor 21,300 votes (45.5%), the SDLP's Fearghal McKinney 3,574 votes (7.6%), the Alliance Party's Vasundhara Kamble 437 votes (0.9%), and Independent John Stevenson 188 (0.4%)Despite the high profile of the contest, and the emotions it aroused, the turnout was only 69.3%.
It is interesting to note that, as a result of the falling turnout in the constituency, nationalism attracts fewer actual votes than unionism ever did before 1997. The drop in turnout appears to be affecting both blocks roughly equally, but if turnout rates became decoupled the outcome would be hard to predict.
The British government's proposed reforms to the electoral system will make FST both easier and harder to predict in the future. Easier in the sense that the Alternative Vote (AV) system will make 'unity' candidates obsolete. If votes remain in their 'blocks' then there is no danger to either block if they compete amongst themselves – and by offering a genuine choice within each block such competition may actually increase the (first-preference) vote of the block. The nature of FST is such that transfers would tend to remain in the block, and thus the winner will almost always come from within the largest block – and will thus be a nationalist. Tactical voting by unionists, however, may help decide which nationalist wins.
The other proposed reform involves reducing the number of constituencies. FST, nestled up against the border, will remain largely untouched, though the precise parts of South Tyrone that are attached to Fermanagh may be changed. It is hard to see this changing the balance except in nationalism's favour. The part of West Tyrone (Westminster constituency) bordering the current FST constituency is the West Tyrone DEA of Omagh district, which is quite heavily nationalist. The intention is to create constituencies of around 70,000 electors, and FST currently has almost 68,000, so it may emerge unscathed.
2010 is thus unlikely to represent the last election to the FST Westminster constituency, unless the reforms are more radical than expected. The constituency will continue to arouse passion for some time to come.