Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: Brexit, health and investment highlighted as big issues on the road to election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

  • Outgoing MP: Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Fein)
  • 2017 result: Sinn Fein gain from UUP
  • Majority: 875 votes
  • Candidates: Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Fein), Tom Elliott (Ulster Unionist Party), Adam Gannon (SDLP), Caroline Wheeler (Independent), Matt Beaumont (Alliance)
  • Electorate: 67,959

By Rodney Edwards

A steady stream of shoppers trying desperately to avoid the showers dart in and out of the shops on Enniskillen's High Street. They dash across a busy Diamond area under a sea of twinkly festive lights as the sound of a guitar-playing busker fills the cold air.

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This time it is Oasis and 'Wonderwall', reminding us 'today is gonna be the day that they're gonna throw it back to you'.

While it's unlikely Noel or Liam were referring to a Westminster election, the battle for Fermanagh and South Tyrone has been thrown back to the electorate in a constituency with more drama on polling day than a Gallagher feud.

It is now up to the people to decide who represents the most westerly constituency in the UK as the uncertainty of Brexit continues to bite not only the border region but Boris Johnson's government.

In 1981, IRA prisoner and hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster for the area.

Today, Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew wants to return as MP in tribute to Sands while Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott is hoping to take back the seat he lost to her in 2017.

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Michelle Gildernew

In 2010, Ms Gildernew won the seat by four votes when she defeated Unionist Unity candidate Rodney Connor in a nail-biting election count at Omagh Leisure Centre.

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Both Ms Gildernew and Mr Elliott will be joined in the battle by the SDLP's Adam Gannon, a councillor on Fermanagh and Omagh District Council; Labour Independent and trade unionist Caroline Wheeler; and Alliance newcomer Matt Beaumont, who in paying tribute to fictional superhero Batman calls himself "MattMan" on Facebook.

While this isn't Gotham City, there are many issues in the in-tray, not least the potential impact of leaving the European Union despite 58.6% in the constituency voting to remain in the 2016 referendum.

Ms Wheeler believes voting for her will send a signal to the DUP and Sinn Fein that people "reject their neoliberal privatisation policies" while Beaumont is asking locals to "vote for the person you believe if you need help, if your family needs help, if your dog needs help, that is going to stand in your corner".

Mr Gannon thinks a "fresh face" is required, saying: "We need something better and something new and that's what I want to provide."

Endorsed by the DUP as the local candidate before his party officially selected him, Mr Elliott said health is "the biggest issue here".

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Tom Elliott

He added: "Most places you go to there are always queries and complaints around the health service and health issues and you know nurses' pay and the potential strikes is adding to all that."

Ms Gildernew said she is "standing up for the interests of the people of Ireland against Brexit" and told her campaign launch at Enniskillen Castle: "In this constituency, I am the only pro-Remain candidate who can win." At the lofty town hall, father-of-four Dylan Quinn said the Westminster election will do little to "fix our politics".

Mr Quinn, responsible for the spate of 'We Deserve Better' rallies decrying the absence of Stormont, said this election is about building a movement.

"Collective action creates confidence and confidence can create change," he said. "In Northern Ireland people see the danger of Brexit and the failure of politics so they are galvanised to make sure the voice of Northern Ireland is better represented."

Shirley Read from Enniskillen said: "I believe this is one of the most important elections since the end of The Troubles.

"People are beginning to wake up to the fact that voting for extremists on both sides is a waste of time. We have been entrenched in the very bigotry that we hoped the Good Friday Agreement would bring to an end and it has gotten us nowhere," she said. She believes a "new generation are not interested in green or orange" but "creating a society where everyone can live".

Mental health is one of the area's most serious issues, said physiologist David Morrison.

"The enormity of the problem requires proportionate investment in public health services.

"Sadly this investment hasn't happened per head of population. Without a functioning assembly, there is no impetus for change. This election is a chance for people to ask their Westminster candidates what they are going to do to help," he said.

Kenny Donaldson, the director of victims' group South East Fermanagh Foundation, said: "People are right to be critical of the political system.

"But abdicating responsibility in refusing to vote is not the answer, we need to rebuild confidence between our political system and the people."

Iman Abugarga, who lives in Enniskillen, said Brexit has been a "great divisive factor, not least because no one actually knows what impact it will have".

She said: "As an NHS worker, I am also concerned about the availability and price of medicines and recruitment and retention of health care personnel. To anyone who is feeling a sense of apathy or frustration with NI and UK politics, I beseech you: be mindful about the liberties we now enjoy as citizens of the union."

Republican Barry Murray questioned the notion that this is "an important election". "Important for who and what? In reality it is the old Orange and Green battle in a poor disguise.

"It's the outworking of a Tory internal battle going on since the 70s. Will it result in a better standard of living for the poor and working poor of Fermanagh or the North? It won't."

And while, to paraphrase the words of our busker, 'all the roads to this election are winding', Gildernew's election team is quietly confident that they are on the journey to victory.

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