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Sinn Fein stronghold in West Tyrone has little chance of being breached



Sinn Fein’s Orfhlaith Begley

Sinn Fein’s Orfhlaith Begley

Sinn Fein’s Orfhlaith Begley

West Tyrone is a constituency synonymous with the Sperrins and an ill-thought-out tweet which cost the area's MP his job.

Barry McElduff posed with a Kingsmill-branded loaf on his head in January 2018 on the 42nd anniversary of the massacre. He later apologised.

The move led to a by-election in which his party colleague Órfhlaith Begley won the seat by a country mile with over 16,000 votes, streets ahead of her nearest competition, the DUP's Tom Buchanan, who pulled in over 8,000.

West Tyrone takes in the area from Strabane to Omagh and had been held securely by Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty since 2001. He won the seat off the UUP's William Thompson, and that has been the last time unionists got even within an inch of it.

Mr McElduff took the political reins in 2017 when Mr Doherty retired and Ms Begley has been the MP since last year for what is arguably one of the safest seats in Northern Ireland. She is again expected to keep her seat comfortably.

West Tyrone is simply Sinn Fein territory. It didn't stop the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan asking the incumbent to step aside and let him give a voice to the area in Westminster, a request Sinn Fein said was "delusional".

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Joining Begley, McCrossan and Buchanan on the ballot paper are Alliance candidate Stephen Donnelly, Andy McKane (UUP), the Green Party's Susan Glass and Aontu's James Hope.

Mr McKane was co-opted into a seat in the Derg ward at Derry City and Strabane District Council to fill the vacancy created when his party colleague Derek Hussey was disqualified from the council for 15 months over his drink-driving convictions.

He is unlikely to make much of an impact in a constituency which is consistently weak for the UUP.

Alliance candidate Mr Donnelly, in his mid-20s, took a council seat in May's Fermanagh and Omagh District Council election - the first for Alliance in almost 20 years.

Ms Glass and Mr Hope cannot be considered as real contenders for the seat, but each of them may absorb some disaffected Sinn Fein or even DUP voters.

Aileen Murphy, assistant editor of the Ulster Herald in Omagh, said that the West Tyrone seat was always a very safe one for Sinn Fein and that's unlikely to change in this election.

"Many thought Sinn Fein could suffer in the by-election because of McElduff's Kingsmill tweet," she said. "And while they did see their vote drop they still held a majority of nearly 8,000 over their nearest rival, Tom Buchanan of the DUP, and were over 10,000 ahead of the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan.

"This time around all three are standing again and the final tally is likely to see them each finishing in the same position.

"With the stalemate at Stormont, cuts to budgets right across the public sector and even the introduction of the Abortion Bill, Brexit and Irish unity, there are a range of issues which locals are keen to use their vote to protest about.

"At this stage it's impossible to see any outcome other than Sinn Fein retaining the West Tyrone seat."

After enduring four elections in two years and with a fifth on the near horizon, constituents could be forgiven for suffering from severe election fatigue.

Martin Gallan, president of the Strabane Chamber of Commerce, was behind the campaign to have Strabane town centre remain an election poster-free zone in the run-up to Christmas, a movement that spread to Omagh and parts of Fermanagh.

"This is the first election that has occurred at Christmastime in maybe 100 years," he said.

"We didn't want to see election posters up on Main Street. It's just not Christmassy. We are sick of politics these last two years. There is so much frustration with Brexit, no Stormont and all those issues.

"At a local level the politicians are still active, but at upper levels they are failing us. They are not doing their jobs, but we still have to do our jobs here."

Out on the streets there are those who feel frustrated over the abstentionist stance, just as there are those who support it, and others who have lost all hope in politics.

"What's the point in it all?" said one man. "Nothing will change. It's the same old, same old here and the place is just deteriorating."

"I support the stance," said another. "No Irish person should swear allegiance to the Queen."

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