Belfast Telegraph

Rivals in razor-edge constituency at odds over Brexit factor

The two main rivals in traditionally Northern Ireland's tightest electoral race are at odds over whether Brexit will prove the decisive factor this time round.

The razor-edge constituency that is Fermanagh South Tyrone was decided by a solitary vote in 2010 and just 53 in 2001.

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott is hoping to retain a seat he wrested from long-time Sinn Fein incumbent Michelle Gildernew just two years ago.

Stung by that defeat, former Stormont minister Mrs Gildernew is determined the pendulum will swing back from orange to green come June 8.

The UK's most westerly constituency, which shares a winding section of the Irish border with four southern counties, voted 59% to Remain in the EU.

While acknowledging a similar vote percentage for Sinn Fein is highly unlikely, Remainer Mrs Gildernew believes people in the constituency are sick of being represented by an MP who voted Leave.

"Brexit is the key focus of this constituency in this election," she said, taking a break from chatting with farmers at a cattle market in Enniskillen.

"Almost 60% of the people of Fermanagh South Tyrone voted to remain in Europe and the incumbent MP voted to take us out of it and that has annoyed a lot of people."

Knocking on doors and talking with voters on a canvas 40 miles away in Dungannon, Mr Elliott dismisses the suggestion his Brexit stance will cost him his seat.

"I don't think it is a major factor," he said.

"I think most people accept that the United Kingdom has spoken, that Brexit is going to go ahead and we have to get the best deal from it.

"People are realistic enough to know all of that is happening and for any politician or individual to say 'we are going to stop Brexit, we are anti-Brexit, we're not going to allow it to happen' is living in a dream world, because it is going to happen.

"That is the reality and we have to accept that and we have to get on with managing that situation."

As he did in 2015, Mr Elliott will benefit from the DUP's decision not to run in a seat where consolidating the pro-Union vote is key.

For him the Brexit process does throw into sharp relief another difference between him and Mrs Gildernew - abstentionism.

"Unless you are at Westminster speaking to the ministers on a weekly if not daily basis then clearly you are not going to influence it," he said.

"It is frustrating that this election has been called only two years after the last. But I've done quite a bit in those two years - much more in representation terms at Westminster than my predecessor did in 14 years. That's the reality."

Mrs Gildernew, who is driving a campaign to secure speaking rights for Northern Ireland MPs in the Irish parliament, does not believe the House of Commons is where her voice needs to be heard.

"I worked in London and I have sat in the public gallery in Westminster and looked at the empty benches and the debates that didn't take into consideration the real needs of the people of this constituency," she said.

"Sinn Fein take our seats in Dublin, we take our seats in Belfast and we take our seats in Brussels - those are the three places where decisions are made that affect my constituents."

The other candidates running in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are the SDLP's Mary Garrity, Alliance's Noreen Campbell and Tanya Jones from the Green Party.

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