Malachi O'Doherty: Victory for abstentionist Sinn Fein candidate in West Tyrone is not an electoral irrelevance
The referendum on the Republic's 8th Amendment and the future shape of nationalism dominate this fascinating contest, says Malachi O'Doherty
Sinn Fein probably has no fear of losing a Westminster seat in the West Tyrone by-election, though it can dispense with it more lightly than any of the other parties since Provo bottoms do not warm green leather.
But the party will study the result with care. However, it turns out it will carry implications across a range of complications that have not mattered in the past.
One of these is the former incumbent's personality, which was more shandy than Marmite. Barry McElduff was an affable clown in a party which does not really provide much stellar variety. You could hate what he stood for but he was undeniably entertaining, a great media performer and a playful bloke.
Sinn Fein will wonder to what extent the character of the man was a magnet for votes.
It must have played some part. If not, then all those other candidates at every election, who go out to charm us, kiss our babies and win us over with bland generalities delivered with a smile, are wasting their time.
If personality does not draw support to a party then the party may as well field the robotic and the dull, as many indeed do.
So one might predict a measurable loss to Sinn Fein of votes that McElduff's charm would have secured for it.
But there are complications to that as well.
One is that some who loved Barry will withdraw their vote, not merely because they miss his wit, but because they want to punish Sinn Fein for dropping him. Many did argue that he should not be sacked after his bizarre antics with a Kingsmill loaf on his head. They accept that it was entirely irrelevant and coincidental that he was being filmed in a supermarket on the anniversary of the massacre of Protestants at Kingsmill.
Some others may be persuaded that ditching McElduff was a good thing, that it proves that Sinn Fein is maturing as a party amenable to criticism, even moderately ashamed of part of its past. There might be a few votes in that view.
And some may rally or fall away for other reasons, difficult to unravel.
You wouldn't want to be the psephologist trying to interpret this result, with so many forces pulling on the decision whether or not to vote for Sinn Fein.
This time the candidate, to be fair, is not a great media performer. Orfhlaith Begley has been over-trained by the party message managers and it shows badly on television, though she may be a lot more genial on the street.
Well, star quality is hard to find.
And just as it was often said that unionists would have voted for a donkey in a sash, many republicans would vote for a wolfhound wrapped in a tricolour and wearing an Easter lily.
But the party will study the result to consider the impact of Sinn Fein's support for a Yes vote in the referendum on abortion in the Republic this month.
Gerry Adams says, quaintly, that conservative social values in Ireland are a product of partition, an idea that will trouble De Valera's soul, if he has one. It is novel and clever to align the Irish unity argument with social liberalism. No one has done that before. In the past it was aligned with Catholic puritanism and economic protectionism. Now it's about gay rights, abortion and Europe.
Was it for this that Pearse stood proudly before the executioner's gun? Will we thank Robert Emmet for same sex marriage when we finally write his epitaph?
This is a timely rebranding for we now live in an Ireland in which the Republic is more liberal than the British north.
The IRA in the 1930s, in reaction to the emergence of socialists in its ranks, declared that it would take its social policy from Papal encyclicals. It is good to remind ourselves how much attitudes have changed.
Sticking to that today, it would be official party policy that gays are 'intrinsically disordered' and that all who help procure an abortion automatically excommunicate themselves from the Catholic church.But there are many Catholics in Tyrone who are appalled by the idea of abortion being legalised in Ireland, and many of them in the past have voted for Sinn Fein. Abortion is one of those few issues that people feel so passionately about that it overrides all other political considerations.
So the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan, who favours retaining the criminalisation of abortion, might pick up a few votes that would in other times have gone to Sinn Fein. But will anyone be able to tell for sure whether the decider there was the differing stands on abortion or on abstention.
For there is another strong reason why some people will prefer to back the SDLP?
If McCrossan wins, he will take the seat and will be in a position to vote on issues relating to Brexit. And with the balance of opinion being so fine in Westminster, that one extra vote might make a difference in debates which will determine not only trade relations with Europe and the rest of the world but also the status of the Irish border. And this is something that is presumed widely to be of particular interest to Sinn Fein but which they absent themselves from voting on in the one place where a difference can be made.
Tyrone has agonised over this before. In 1969, Bernadette Devlin won the Mid Ulster seat and went to Westminster. She was a surprise candidate after much discussion among local republicans.
The republicans then were divided on whether to abstain or not if they won. Sinn Fein's Tom Mitchell wanted to fight the seat and take it. Kevin Agnew wanted to be the candidate and to abstain, a position which was then unpopular within the republican support base.
Mitchell had won the seat before and thought it had been pointless to stay away, reducing the election to a popularity contest. The compromise was to stand aside and let another radical candidate win the seat and take it.
Of course, Bernadette went on to argue that there had been little gained by going to Westminster, beyond, perhaps, the opportunity to walk across the floor and thump the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, in protest against his smug comments after Bloody Sunday.
But now there is a prospect of a small number of votes making a real difference and changing the government's Brexit plans.
And while Sinn Fein is impervious to that argument, some of their voters may not be.
It is going it be an interesting contest.