Mid Ulster election unionist Lutton will not shake Sinn Fein man Molloy's hand even if he wins
Unionists unity candidate Nigel Lutton has insisted he will not shake hands with Sinn Fein's Francie Molloy – regardless of who wins tomorrow's battle to represent Mid Ulster.
On the eve of the by-election to choose the constituency's next MP, Mr Molloy replied that he found Mr Lutton's stance "regrettable".
Voters go to the polls tomorrow with two other candidates, Patsy McGlone of the SDLP and Eric Bullick of Alliance, also on the ballot paper and a result expected in the early hours of Friday morning.
It has been a short campaign – beginning in earnest just over a fortnight ago – and fought on the doorsteps and laneways of the mainly rural constituency, away from the glare of the media.
Yet the by-election had been signalled for more than six months, since deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness announced he was giving up his House of Commons seat to concentrate on Stormont.
Both Mr Molloy and Mr Lutton have insisted they are looking to the future – even though history has given them a tragic link to the past.
Upper Bann MP David Simpson used parliamentary privilege in 2007 to connect Mr Molloy to the IRA murder of Mr Lutton's father, Frederick, an RUC reservist. Mr Molloy denies the accusation and insists if the DUP MP were to repeat the assertion outside the House of Commons, he will sue.
The man endorsed by the DUP, Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister has said he wants to leave the past in the past – but is not yet ready to shake Mr Molloy's hand.
While he recognised the normal courtesy of shaking hands – certainly a part of the etiquette on platforms announcing election results – Mr Lutton said it would not happen.
"It's nothing whatsoever to do with politics, it's about a state of mind," he said. "Those are actions which can damage the people involved in them. If it ever was to happen I would have to be genuine about it.
"I certainly don't want to do it for showmanship. I think where healing for victims is concerned you need to be at a certain place so I am not ready for a handshake."
Mr Lutton and Mr Molloy (right) have ever met – and do not appear likely to do so even when the vote counting begins shortly after 10pm tomorrow night.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, after almost a fortnight of requests for an interview, the 42-year-old funeral director and embalmer insisted he has focused on the canvassing rather than press and television.
"I have lost half a stone with all the walking," he said.
Mr Lutton said he faced next to no criticism on the doorsteps and has been surprised by the level of support. "I think people are saying they want to see an end to unionism eating itself," he said.
"Within the unionist family they are saying if unionists can come together and really restore confidence within unionism that is something they really would appreciate."
Responding, Mr Molloy said he regarded the attitude of Mr Lutton as "regrettable".
"If people need more time to come to that position that is fair enough, but at the same time there should be no hierarchy of victims," he said.
Mr Molloy insists his main focus is on maintaining the rebuilding of Mid Ulster "in terms of jobs, in terms of young people... and we are getting a very positive response".
Mid Ulster by-election candidates
Eric Bullick, Alliance
Married with two sons, Mr Bullick has been a member of the Alliance Party since 1975 and served most of his life in education as head teacher in Denamona PS, Fintona, and Omagh Integrated Primary, as well as a founder and current governor of Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh. Also a member of Omagh district policing partnership.
Nigel Lutton, unionist unity
A former Young Unionist, Mr Lutton worked as a researcher in the Portadown office of DUP MP David Simpson but now works as a funeral director and embalmer. The son of a murdered RUC reservist, he has also had experience with victims groups including the Wave trauma centre.
Patsy McGlone, SDLP
An SDLP Assembly |member since 2003, Mr McGlone also has a long record as a Cookstown councillor including a stint as the council’s chairman in 2002-3. A former deputy leader of the party, he lives in Cookstown, is married and is currently chairman of Stormont’s trade, enterprise and industry |committee.
Francie Molloy, Sinn Fein
An Assembly member for Mid Ulster since 1998 and councillor from 1985 in Dungannon, Mr Molloy had been due to be the first republican Speaker of the Assembly when William Hay reaches mid-term. He stood in the Euro election in 1994 and was director of elections for Bobby Sands.