Belfast Telegraph

Fascinating by-election looms to fill Barry McElduff seat

By Suzanne Breen

Eight months after Theresa May secured a wafer thin parliamentary majority thanks to the DUP, nobody would have guessed that the first Westminster by-election would be in Northern Ireland.

The decision of voters in West Tyrone surely won't affect the arithmetic in the House of Commons, but the coming by-election will still be fascinating.

Barry McElduff won the seat effortlessly last June. He polled 51% of the vote, up 7% on Pat Doherty's 2015 performance.

Despite the controversy of the past 10 days, it's impossible to see Sinn Fein not retaining the seat.

The outgoing MP was known as a very hard worker in the constituency, where his party has a strong machine. There appears to be no bad blood between McElduff and Sinn Fein over his departure, with no local splits looming that would damage the party.

Considerable interest will centre on who Sinn Fein chooses to replace him. Local republicans told the Belfast Telegraph they believe it is unlikely to be any of the party's three sitting MLAs - Michaela Boyle, Declan McAleer or Catherine Kelly.

"They are well established in their own areas but none of them have a profile across the entire constituency," a source said.

He believed that 28-year-old Grace McDermott from Castlederg - who unsuccessfully contested the 2016 Assembly election for the party - could be its Westminster candidate.

"It would be a big leap for her, yet we've seen with Elisha McCallion in Derry that a relative unknown can rise through the ranks very quickly," he said.

But it's unclear whether Ms McDermott, who has a young baby, would want the role.

Another name circulating is former Tyrone All-Ireland winning captain Peter Canavan. A big name like his would be ideal for Sinn Fein in the current circumstances. However, the GAA legend was previously linked to a Stormont candidacy and nothing materialised.

The Ulster Unionists are very keen on a unity candidate - most likely either a victim or a victim's relative - to run against Sinn Fein. Party sources said conditions were ideal to run a "non-partisan candidate" to highlight victims' issues.

However, other parties are less keen. The DUP's Thomas Buchanan was runner-up to Mr McElduff in June, but he was still more than 10,000 votes behind in a constituency where Sinn Fein have an absolute majority.

The DUP could run either Mr Buchanan or Omagh councillor Errol Thompson. Suggestions yesterday that the SDLP could stand Mark Durkan are erroneous. The former Foyle MP wants a chance to win back his old seat next time round.

The SDLP candidate is likely to be high-profile MLA Daniel McCrossan. He was yesterday highly critical of how Michelle O'Neill had handled the Kingsmill video situation, saying it totally contradicted her party's "campaign for equality, respect and integrity".

If he secures the nomination, he's likely to focus on Sinn Fein's abstentionism and the importance of having a strong local anti-Brexit voice in the Commons.

In terms of the Stormont talks, McElduff's resignation makes a deal marginally more likely. While he remained in place, the DUP would have struggled to sell an agreement to its base.

In terms of Sinn Fein's commitment to reaching a compromise, much hinges on whether Gerry Adams wants to leave the stage next month against a backdrop of stalemate at Stormont, or the establishment of a new executive.

Belfast Telegraph

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