By-election: Sinn Fein on back foot over abortion but rock-solid majority looks impregnable

Sinn Fein candidate Orfhlaith Begley (right) on the campaign trail with party vice president Michelle O'Neill
Sinn Fein candidate Orfhlaith Begley (right) on the campaign trail with party vice president Michelle O'Neill

AINE FOX gauges opinion in West Tyrone ahead of Thursday’s by-election sparked by Barry McElduff’s resignation

The West Tyrone by-election may have been prompted by a controversial tweet which provoked outrage from Troubles victims, but the parties’ stances on abortion could have more of an effect on the result, according to candidates.

DUP candidate Tom Buchanan in Omagh canvasing for the upcoming West Tyrone by-election

DUP candidate Tom Buchanan in Omagh canvasing for the upcoming West Tyrone by-election

Voters are being asked to return to the polls less than a year since the last parliamentary election, following Barry McElduff’s resignation in the wake of a video showing him balancing a Kingsmill-branded loaf on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmills massacre.

The outrage back in January at the social media post, which Mr McElduff denied was an intended reference to the sectarian murders of 10 Protestant workmen by republican paramilitaries near the south Armagh village of Kingsmills exactly 42 years earlier, sparked talk of an agreed victims’ candidate running to replace him.

That failed to materialise and the four other main parties put forward their candidates in a bid to unseat Sinn Fein in the sprawling, largely rural border constituency they have held for 17 years.

The decision of the party to select a political newbie – albeit an activist and the daughter of a former councillor – is most likely a signal they believe they will keep the seat in the mainly nationalist area without difficulty.

The UUP's Chris Smyth is a local councillor

The UUP's Chris Smyth is a local councillor

Orfhlaith Begley, 26, is confident skills from her current job in law would help her as an MP. She said: “I think the job I have as a solicitor will stand me in good stead to represent people. I’m an advocate for people in the court and in tribunals so hopefully I can be an advocate for constituents as well.”

Retaining the party’s 50% share of the vote in 2017 could be seen as a daunting prospect for someone who is running for office for the first time, but Ms Begley said she has faith in the loyalty of the party’s supporters.

“I hope the people of West Tyrone will come out again and endorse Sinn Fein’s vision of a new Ireland,” she said.

She reiterated the sentiment when questioned about her party’s stance on abortion and the policy of not taking their seats in Westminster, saying she is “hopeful” voters will stick with them come Thursday.

SDLP candidate Daniel McCrossan claimed Sinn Fein's abstentionism was a concern for voters

SDLP candidate Daniel McCrossan claimed Sinn Fein's abstentionism was a concern for voters

Sinn Fein is campaigning for a yes vote in next month’s referendum in the Republic, supporting the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which gives equal right to life to the mother and the unborn, to replace it with wording that would allow politicians to set Ireland’s abortion laws in the future.

The party currently supports the right of a woman to have an abortion in circumstances of rape, fatal foetal abnormality and when there is a risk to maternal health.

But the DUP’s Thomas Buchanan, who in 2017 managed just over half the number of votes Sinn Fein won, is convinced their position on abortion, coupled with the fallout from Mr McElduff’s video, will damage their support.

“I think the Sinn Fein vote will suffer at this election.” he said.

While Mr Buchanan – the only one of the five candidates not aged in his 20s – maintained he has never gone into an election to lose, his confidence of a lower Sinn Fein vote did not appear to extend to the party being ousted. “Will it happen to the extent that we can overthrow the massive majority that’s there? That’s another issue,” he said.

The former building contractor, who was first elected as an Assembly member for the area in 2003, said he used to work on both sides of the border and appreciated the concerns of business people especially over Brexit.

But the pro-Leave politician insisted those he has spoken to in the majority Remain constituency want to “get on with it” when it comes to the UK leaving the EU.

He accused some parties of “placing fear” into people with talk of a hard border and, on negotiations around that particular stumbling block, said: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

This election is a chance for voters to move away from the status quo at “the most critical time facing this island”, according to the SDLP’s Daniel McCrossan.

The law graduate, an MLA for two years, said Sinn Fein’s abstentionism appeared to be more of a concern now than ever before.

He claimed that, despite the party having held the West Tyrone seat on that stance for almost two decades, voters are more worried now amid Brexit talks.

In a coffee shop in Fintona, less than 10 miles from Omagh, during a break from canvassing, he said: “(Voters are saying) ‘We voted to remain but no-one’s going to go and fight for us. What’s the point in that?’”

An anti-abortion candidate, he said people “are telling me in large numbers that they want to see a pro-life candidate elected and they want to see someone that’s going to stand up for the protection of the unborn child and of course of the mother”.

Similarly to Mr Buchanan, Mr McCrossan, 29, described what he saw as “a turn” in this election, cautioned with a quick follow-up of “by what degree I’m not sure”.

He was critical of Sinn Fein’s record in the area, accusing them of being “inward-looking and self-interested and that is frustrating people generally”.

Offering voters something different had been the hope of Kevin Skelton, 63, when he mooted the idea of running as a victims’ candidate. But Mr Skelton, whose wife was killed in the Omagh bomb, said he felt insulted by an unwillingness of other parties to stand aside, and has torn up his polling card, vowing not to cast a vote.

Mr Skelton, whose Families Moving On victims’ group’s office is near the site of the 1998 explosion, claimed he had spoken to traditional Sinn Fein voters who said they would have voted for him, had he stood, in the wake of Mr McElduff’s video. Now he had resigned himself to the vote returning to “tribal politics”, and described a Sinn Fein victory as “a foregone conclusion”.

Local councillor Chris Smyth, the UUP’s candidate, said his party leader had been the first to call for a “non-partisan cross community candidate” but blamed a “lack of engagement from other parties” for it not coming to fruition.

Mr Smyth, who said he is too young to remember the Good Friday Agreement, pledged to work to make Northern Ireland “a peaceful, happy and tolerant society, at ease with itself and its neighbours”.

Alliance’s Stephen Donnelly said Brexit will have a “massive impact”, especially on border areas such as West Tyrone and reiterated the party’s push for a referendum on any final deal before the UK’s departure.

He said: “We believe it is only fair people get a chance to have their say, given many are only now realising the disastrous impact Brexit will have on their lives.”