Belfast Telegraph

West Tyrone by-election: Politicians may be smiling, but for voters it is a chore they could do without

By Rebecca Black

Perhaps it was the almost certainty of the result, perhaps it was election weariness, but voters in West Tyrone yesterday appeared distinctly unenthusiastic at being called to the polls for the fifth time in three years.

For a constituency that is usually among those with the highest voter turnout - topping 68% last year - more voted with their feet this year by going somewhere else.

West Tyrone dominated the headlines in January when Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff sparked outrage by posting a bizarre video on his Twitter feed on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre.

It the footage, he larked about with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head.

Initially trying to defuse the row with an apology to the families of the 10 Protestant workmen killed by the IRA at Kingsmill, Mr McElduff eventually bowed to public pressure and resigned.

A by-election was then called to replace him.

With Sinn Fein enjoying a firm hold on West Tyrone since Pat Doherty took it from Ulster Unionist William Thompson in 2001, even an agreed unionist candidate seemed unlikely to upset the applecart in the constituency.

And with the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan trailing in third last year, Sinn Fein appeared unassailable.

An early proposal to agree a victims' candidate to contest the by-election did not get off the ground.

Just last year Mr McElduff retained the seat, increasing Sinn Fein's already commanding 16,807 vote total that Mr Doherty had won in 2015 up to 22,060.

Sinn Fein's choice of a bright, young female solicitor with party pedigree seemed to guarantee it would manage another hold.

Instead, the speculation around polling stations yesterday was over how much of its majority Sinn Fein would retain, whether a lower turnout and a row over its stance on abortion would have much of an impact.

But Orfhlaith Begley appeared determined yesterday, steadily working her way around polling stations both rural and urban, greeting voters as well as remaining active on social media, posting videos urging voters to make their mark for her.

However, election day opened to a tetchy start after the SDLP reported a Sinn Fein canvasser for having an electronic device inside a polling station in Strabane.

It turned out to be a Kindle tablet.

But the day then took a sinister turn when a man reportedly produced a gun at a polling station in Greencastle.

A man was being questioned last night as the votes were being counted.

Meanwhile, in Omagh, voters appeared exasperated as they left polling stations.

At Gibson Primary School, which usually returns a mixed vote, local woman Patricia McCrory stated her annoyance at being asked to vote again - particularly in a Westminster election while Stormont remained in suspension.

"It's galling when they (MLAs) can't get together in Belfast, that's what everyone wants, for them to get back together and get at it," she said.

Pius and Michelle Fox were equally irritated but said they were determined to vote nonetheless out of a sense of duty.

"I always have to come out and vote," added Michelle.

Others at the polling station were sceptical about why they were there at all.

One man who did not wish to be named quipped: "We're all here because some guy put a loaf of bread on his head."

A woman summed up her feelings on the matter, simply commenting: "It's senseless."

New MP Órfhlaith Begley, Sinn Féin, centre, pictured with party leaders Michelle O'Neill, left, and Mary-Lou McDonald at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
New MP Órfhlaith Begley, Sinn Féin, centre, pictured with party leaders Michelle O'Neill, left, and Mary-Lou McDonald at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
New MP Órfhlaith Begley, Sinn Féin pictured at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre with party colleagues, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
New MP Órfhlaith Begley, Sinn Féin pictured at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Tom Buchanan, Democratic Unionist Party at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Daniel McCrossan, Social Democratic and Labour Party at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Stephen Donnelly, Alliance Party at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Órfhlaith Begley, Sinn Féin, centre, arrives with party leaders Mary-Lou McDonald, left, and Michelle ONeill, right, at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Órfhlaith Begley, Sinn Féin, left, arrives with party leaders Mary-Lou McDonald, centre, and Michelle ONeill, right, at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Election staff count ballot papers at Omagh Leisure Complex for the West Tyrone Westminster by-election, triggered when the last MP quit amid claims he mocked victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 3rd May 2018 - West Tyrone By-Election 2018 in Northern Ireland Electoral Commission staff start counting votes at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 3rd May 2018 - West Tyrone By-Election 2018 in Northern Ireland Electoral Commission staff start counting votes at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
St Mary's Primary School in Strabane where voters have turned out to vote for their MP in the West Tyrone by-election after the seat was vacated by Sinn Fein Barry McElduff Photo: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
DUP handout photo of DUP leader Arlene Foster with Thomas Buchanan outside Omagh County primary school during voting in the West Tyrone parliamentary by-election. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 3, 2018. Voting is under way in the Westminster by-election triggered when the last MP quit amid claims he mocked victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles. See PA story POLITICS Election WestTyrone. Photo credit should read: DUP/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Daniel McCrossan outside Strabane County primary school after casting his vote in West Tyrone parliamentary by-election, with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and deputy leader Nichola Mallon. Pic: SDLP/PA Wire
Sinn Fein Candidate Órfhlaith Begley pictured as she arrives to vote at Dean Maguirc College, Carrickmore. Photo Credit: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
Sinn Fein candidate Orfhlaith Begley arriving at a polling station in the Co Tyrone village of Carrickmore.
3rd May 2018 General views of Dean Maguirc College, Carrickmore where voters have turned out to vote for their MP in the West Tyrone By Election after the seat was vacated by Sinn Fein Barry McElduff Mandatory Credit © Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
3rd May 2018 General views of St Mary Primary school in Strabane where voters have turned out to vote for their MP in the West Tyrone By Election after the seat was vacated by Sinn Fein Barry McElduff Mandatory Credit © Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
3rd May 2018 General views of St Mary Primary school in Strabane where voters have turned out to vote for their MP in the West Tyrone By Election after the seat was vacated by Sinn Fein Barry McElduff Mandatory Credit © Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
3rd May 2018 Sinn Fein Candidate Órfhlaith Begley pictured as she arrives to vote at Dean Maguirc College, Carrickmore where she is hoping to replace MP Barry McElduff who stepped down as MP for West Tyrone. Mandatory Credit © Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
3rd May 2018 Sinn Fein Candidate Órfhlaith Begley pictured with mum Deirdre as she arrives to vote at Dean Maguirc College, Carrickmore where she is hoping to replace MP Barry McElduff who stepped down as MP for West Tyrone. Mandatory Credit © Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
3rd May 2018 Sinn Fein Candidate Órfhlaith Begley pictured as she arrives to vote at Dean Maguirc College, Carrickmore where she is hoping to replace MP Barry McElduff who stepped down as MP for West Tyrone. Mandatory Credit © Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

A short distance away at Omagh County Primary School, which returns a higher unionist vote, the DUP said the abortion issue had come up more on the doorsteps than the victims' issue had.

Candidate Thomas Buchanan told the Belfast Telegraph that many Catholic voters had promised him their vote because the DUP was pro-life.

Last month Ms Begley was the target of pro-life graffiti plastered over a church in Carrickmore, condemning Sinn Fein's stance on abortion.

Mr Buchanan said the abortion issue had come up regularly on the doorsteps during his canvassing.

His party strongly opposes relaxing the strict laws on abortion in Northern Ireland, at a time when Sinn Fein is officially backing changes to the Irish constitution in the Republic that could end the country's ban on terminations.

"From the thousands of doors we knocked, in both Protestant and Roman Catholic areas, we were very happy with the response we were getting," Mr Buchanan said.

"There were people from the nationalist community pledging their vote to us. Obviously you get that on the doorstep, and we will have to wait and see if that materialises.

"But abortion was the main issue brought up on the doorsteps. A number of Roman Catholic people now feel that they cannot fit into the policy of other parties (over abortion), and the DUP is becoming an outlet for them as the only pro-life party."

Mr Buchanan said he also heard anger from voters across the community over Mr McElduff.

"They felt insulted over his behaviour but also felt it was disgraceful that Sinn Fein did not act more over the matter - he resigned of his own accord, rather than be forced," he said.

Meanwhile, across the town at the Station Centre, within sight of the filling station where Mr McElduff filmed his now infamous video, turnout was also low.

But here, at a polling station that returns more of a republican vote, fewer people were willing to comment, saying only they were happy enough to come out to vote again.

The station was one of Alliance candidate Stephen Donnelly's last calls of the evening, accompanied by former party leader David Ford.

He also reported a lower turnout than usual across the constituency, but was undaunted, saying that it would be normal for a by-election. He said he was hoping to improve on his performance last year when he got 1,000 votes.

"Hopefully there will be a good response to ourselves, but it's early yet," he said. "The lower turnout seems to be consistent across the constituency. We are hoping for a good vote in Omagh, where we have done well in some areas in the past."

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