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West Tyrone seat was always going to be a walk in the park

By Suzanne Breen

For a political novice, contesting even a council election can be nerve-racking. An Assembly poll increases the pressure considerably but a Westminster by-election is surely the most challenging of all.

Well, anywhere but Northern Ireland that is. The sectarian nature of local politics means that seats don't change hands anywhere near as often as they do elsewhere, and so many election runners are dead certs.

Orfhlaith Begley ­- like Paul Maskey in West Belfast in 2011 ­- wasn't perhaps the most dynamic candidate her party has ever fielded. But she didn't have to be.

West Tyrone was always going to be a walk in the park.

Sinn Fein's share of the vote was down from 51% to 47% but the 26-year-old solicitor still coasted home almost 8,000 votes ahead of her nearest rival, DUP MLA Tom Buchanan. And that means it was generally a good night for the party and no difficult questions were posed. Mary Lou McDonald has the party's first election win under her belt as its news leader.

But privately Sinn Fein will assess why its vote was down and the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan's was up by 5%. Abortion was obviously an issue for some voters but canvassers said Brexit was mentioned at more doors than the argument over a woman's right to choose.

We also must remember that Barry McElduff was a very popular politician on the ground in nationalist West Tyrone. As a high-profile, hard-working MLA for nearly two decades, he had built a strong support base and enjoyed a considerable personal vote.

As a more conservative constituency than some, West Tyrone was a test for how Sinn Fein's new liberal abortion policy was going down. The lack of any major drift from the party means Mary Lou will be confident in moving forward on the issue. The SDLP just doesn't make gains these days and the party will enjoy its vote increase particularly since it comes hot on the heels of the loss of its three Westminster seats.

While more attention has perhaps focussed on the strengths Nichola Mallon and Claire Hanna bring to the SDLP's team, Mr McCrossan is sometimes overlooked.

He is a very polished performer and with a spirited air that is unusual in his party. Perhaps that is why he gets under Sinn Fein's skin as was evident from the behaviour of some of its supporters at the count. The vote increase will give heart to the SDLP at a time when the party has been on a dangerously downward spiral.

But it does not mean it's seriously competitive with Sinn Fein again. McCrossan for all his ability was still 10,000 votes behind Ms Begley. The future of the SDLP, and the party's departure from the political stage to make way for Fianna Fail remains very much on the agenda.

In the battle within unionism, the UUP's 3% rise compared to the DUP's 3% drop is good news for Robin Swann's party. Councillor Chris Smyth was an energetic, enthusiastic candidate who flourished on the campaign trail.

But the DUP still outpolled the UUP by almost three-to-one and Mr Swann knows that his party remains up against it in the battle for unionist hearts and minds.

In his speech after the declaration at the count, Mr Buchanan said he was delighted with how his party polled. It had closed the gap with Sinn Fein from 11,000 to 8,000 votes. True, but that was just a reflection of the lower turn-out.

Mr Buchanan narrowed the difference but by only 1% from last June's Westminster election. Then, Sinn Fein secured 51% to the DUP's 27%. This time it was 47% to 24%. West Tyrone won't be changing hands any time soon.

Speculation that a unity victims' candidate could have won the seat is wishful thinking. Nationalists would have turned out in far greater numbers for Sinn Fein had there been a danger of the seat falling into non-nationalist hands.

Alliance's vote went up just 1% which is surely disappointing for the party.

It had the opportunity to capitalise on frustration at the lack of an Executive and sweep up votes from any 'a plague on all your houses' sentiment.

Under Naomi Long, the party has prioritised building a base west of the Bann. While candidate Stephen Donnelly is on course for a council seat, his performance shows the challenges that lie ahead if the Alliance is to be competitive in rural constituencies.

This election offered pluses for all the parties. Sinn Fein won the seat, the DUP secured the runner-up spot with ease, and the SDLP, UUP, and Alliance enjoyed vote increases. West Tyrone was never on course to deliver anything more exhilarating than that.

Belfast Telegraph

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