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2007 Assembly Election Guide: Constituency No. 10 of 18 - Mid Ulster 
22nd-Feb-2007 05:05 pm
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Although in popular parlance, Mid Ulster usually referred to the Lurgan/Portadown area, the parliamentary constituency has always lain a little further west, with Omagh traditionally its largest town. However, after radical boundary changes in the 1990s moved it back to the east, and Mid Ulster now clusters around the exact geographical centre of Northern Ireland, which lies in the townland of Annaghone between Cookstown and Stewartstown.

Mid Ulster consists of the whole of the Districts of Cookstown and Magherafelt, as well as the 6 northernmost of 22 wards in the Borough of Dungannon and South Tyrone (the area around Coalisland, Newmills, Donaghmore and Cappagh). Like other rural constituencies, it is a sprawling one, stretching from the Glenshane Pass almost to the M1.

Cookstown is the largest town in Mid Ulster, but with barely 10,000 people, it is not really a dominant centre. The other main towns are Coalisland, Maghera and Magherafelt. But perhaps more than any other constituency, the heartland of Mid Ulster is in its villages. Important smaller population centres include Ardboe, Bellaghy, Cappagh, Castledawson, Coagh, Donaghmore, Draperstown, Gulladuff, Knockloughrim, Moneymore, Newmills, Pomeroy, Sandholes, Stewartstown, Swatragh, The Loup and Tullyhogue.

Many people could identify most of these settlements very firmly with one part of Northern Ireland's community or another. Mid Ulster has been a front line for sectarian conflict since the 17th Century. Then, as now, the better land in the fertile valleys of the Moyola and Ballinderry Rivers is generally held by Protestants, and the poorly drained land around Lough Neagh and the interior high moorland is dominated by Catholics. In the past generation or so, the Catholic population of most of the larger urban centres has increased dramatically, resulting in what was once politically marginal territory having a hefty Catholic majority (65.3% Catholic, 33.7% Protestant, in 2001). Cookstown and Magherafelt, once towns with significant Protestant majorities are now evenly balanced; Stewartstown now has a Catholic majority of close to 3-to-1; Protestant minorities in places like Pomeroy and Coalisland have all but disappeared.

As much as demographic changes, however, it was the boundary commissioners who created a constituency with such a strong Nationalist majority; never before had the traditional republican strongholds in South Derry been in the same constituency as those around Coalisland and Cappagh. Martin McGuinness reaped the reward as early as 1997, in the first election held on these boundaries.

There are mixed communities, both urban and rural, in Mid Ulster, but at a micro level there is more segregation here than in West Tyrone or Fermanagh, and most of the larger towns tend to have distinct 'orange' and 'green' ends. Up and down the constituency villages dominated by one section of the community nestle uneasily beside those dominated by the other. Protestant Newmills is just a few miles from Catholic Donaghmore; similarly Protestant Coagh and Catholic Ardboe, or Knockloghrim and Gulladuff, or Upperlands and Clady.

Only seven towns and villages in Mid Ulster have populations over 1,000, and the proportion of Catholics in each of them is as follows - Cookstown 53%, Magherafelt 56%, Coalisland 96%, Maghera 72%, Castledawson 43%, Moneymore 48%, Bellaghy 86%.

Socio-economically, Mid Ulster sits close to the middle of the Northern Ireland spectrum. In common with many rural areas, unemployment is low, but then so are incomes. School performance is slightly above average, but a lower proportion of the population than average hold degrees. There is significant outmigration of skilled young people looking for better paid jobs, while at the same time a growing Eastern European population fills poorly paid, unskilled, posts in industries like food processing.

At 2.03, the fertility rate is lower only than that in South Down and Newry and Armagh. However, it is a sign of the times that even this is below replacement level. However, the age structure in Mid Ulster is noticeably younger than average - the baby boom that affected Catholic parts of Northern Ireland in the '70s and '80s happened here too, and although it is now over, the effects are still filtering through the age pyramid. Less children than average are born out of wedlock in this traditional area, and civil marriage is rare.

There are few extremes of wealth or poverty here. Many Housing Executive estates in the larger towns have been sold off and are in excellent social and material condition. In the country districts, again typically for the rural West, there is a tendency for the more Protestant areas to be slightly better off than Catholic ones, especially in the poor land around Pomeroy and Cappagh and along the shores of Lough Neagh. This is probably a reflection of the size and type of farm, but the difference is far from absolute. Outside a few of Magherafelt's leafier avenues, nowhere in Mid Ulster is notable for its wealth; outside Ardboe and a few of Coalisland's estates nowhere is particularly notable for its poverty, with the exception of the deeply rural area around Dunnamore on the Cookstown-Omagh road. The quality of the land here is very poor, and this is one of the last examples of deeply entrenched, old-fashioned, Catholic rural poverty in Northern Ireland.

Mid Ulster has returned MLAs with the same set of partisan affiliations in both Assembly elections - 3 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP, 1 DUP and 1 UUP. Nicholas Whyte's count by count figures, show that this was fairly clear cut last time. Two party colleagues, in this case from the SDLP, duked it out for the last seat with considerable leeway for the next most vulnerable incumbent.

However, the 2005 elections confirmed the possibility of change here, with the DUP outpolling the UUP by more than 2-to-1 in the Westminster election. On the Republican side, there has been turmoil in some quarters over Sinn Féin's decision to accept the PSNI, culminating in the resignation of sitting MLA Geraldine Dougan from the party, and revivified dissident Republican activity, particularly in South Derry.

One thing that these events won't change is the communal balance of seats held - 4 Nationalist and 2 Unionist. Looking at the parties, let's start of the Nationalist side. The SDLP have traditionally ran two candidates here for one seat. In the 1998 elections, Dennis Haughey, who must have thought he was going to be the MP for this area until Martin McGuinness came along, beat out Patsy McGlone decisively. In 2003, McGlone turned the tables, edging out Haughey by 600 votes.

This time, Haughey has retired and McGlone's running mate will be Kathleen Lagan. Lagan can't be dismissed, as a four-term councillor for the Sperrins area, she will be the only Nationalist candidate with a base in the North of the constituency, and also has the alphabet in her favour. However, McGlone didn't run twice only to lose out the third time and I think the odds favour him. Like in other places, the SDLP vote has declined here, but has been stable at 17-18% since the turn of the milennium and their seat is clearly safe.

On paper, Sinn Féin should be a safe bet for three seats. They polled more than three quotas in the 2003 Assembly elections and both sets of elections in 2005. However, there are some notes of caution that must be sounded for them, of which more below. As well as Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin will be running veteran Francie Molloy again, one of their more free thinking senior members, and Dungannon Deputy Mayor Michelle O'Neill, who easily wins this year's 'babe of the election' prize. That's a strong ticket - where are the potential problems?

Firstly, Martin McGuinness' vote was clearly down in both percentage and numerical terms in the 2005 general election. It would be tempting to dismiss this as merely the unwinding of tactical voting, but the SDLP vote was effectively static in both elections, as was the total Unionist vote. Between the 2001 and 2005 general elections, 4,000 Mid Ulster Sinn Féin voters stopped voting.

We don't know very much about these people, but at least some of them must provide a potential voter pool for a dissident candidate (unless one takes the view that they all 'disappeared' when they had to prove they were real people rather than blank medical cards). While Sinn Féin claim to have had a very successful meeting on policing in Galbally, there has been scattered dissident activity in Coalisland for some time. But the real threat to Sinn Féin's right comes less from East Tyrone than South Derry, where dissidents have been active and not afraid to shout about it, and where SF have lost a councillor and an MLA is short succession. The loss of the former was apparently a matter of local rather than national politics, but losing Geraldine Dougan was a big deal. McGuinness doesn't have a local base (and doesn't need to), O'Neill is based in Coalisland in the far South, as politically is Molloy and he actually lives near the Moy, way down on the Armagh border. That leaves the SF ticket a little thin on local roots in Magherafelt district, and indeed in Cookstown district.

Veterans tend to respect their old comrades. While the bright and attractive Michelle O'Neill clearly has her strengths from a Sinn Féin point of view, I just wonder did they perhaps miss a trick by not running a respected 'war veteran' from the South Derry area, either as the third candidate, or as a sweeper taking up a fourth spot in the ballot paper?

In any case, Republican Sinn Féin have taken up the dissident mantle here and are running Brendan McLaughlin, a former Hunger Striker from outside Derry City. He too lacks local roots, which might be a disadvantage but he has a strong Republican pedigree. On paper, this was always the best potential pickup for the dissidents - the largest SF vote apart from West Belfast combined with much more dissent on the policing issue than in West Belfast; a tradition of militant republicans going it alone outside the mainstream Republican movement (think Francis Hughes); and quite a bit of sectarian tension. A candidate with a strong local Republican track record, especially one running on a 'soft no' platform of opposition both to the PSNI and a return to war, would have really had Sinn Féin on the rack. As it stands, McLaughlin has his work cut out for him but it's probably the second best chance for a dissident gain after Newry and Armagh. Sinn Féin clearly take him seriously - last time they ran a 4th candidate here as a sweeper, this time it's a tight three candidate strategy, the sort you operate when you can't afford to take risks.

On my sums, he needs 12.2% to win against a well-balanced Sinn Féin ticket, but if McGuinness polls a significantly higher vote than the other two, that target could be as low as 11.5%, or even 10.1% against a very poorly balanced SF ticket. Those are better figures than in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. My money is still on Sinn Féin holding three, but this is clearly a below the radar prospect for RSF.

On the Unionist side, the DUP have a shot at taking out the UUP's Billy Armstrong, a two-term MLA and Stewartstown farmer, and monopolising Unionist representation here. Firstly, they need to poll more than twice the UUP vote. They managed this in the 2005 general elections, where they polled 23.5% to the UUP's 10.7%. In the local elections however, the UUP did better as was the case in most places, and the DUP led by 19.4% to 10.3% - close, but no cigar. And even if the DUP do manage to outpoll the UUP by 2-to-1, they also need to balance both candidates ahead of Armstrong.

This is a textbook example of why balancing is important. With a quota of 14.3%, and a total Unionist vote of around 34%, the weakest of the three Unionist candidates will be eliminated, and see their transfers elect the other two. Let's say the DUP poll 23% to the UUP's 10%, but their candidates are imbalanced, with the leader polling 14% to the running mate's 9%. In that case, the DUP's second candidate is eliminated and their transfers will elect the lead DUP candidate first and then the UUP candidate. However, if the DUP can balance two candidates on 11.5%, then it will be Armstrong who goes out and will watch his transfers elect the two DUP candidates.

There's a perception that Willie McCrea's departure to Mid Ulster hurts the DUP's chances here. I'm not so sure. He passed a very creditable 85% of his transfers to his running mate last time, indicating his vote is a DUP more than a personal one. Ian McCrea, Willie's son, will be one of the DUP candidates and produced that big lead over Armstrong in the last Westminster poll. Leaving the family home in Magherafelt, he moved his political base to Cookstown in 2001 where he has been elected twice. He is joined on the ticket by two-term Magherafelt councillor Anne Forde, who switched electoral area to the Sperrins in 2005 and managed to knock out long-serving Independent Unionist Bertie Montgomery.

Clearly, Armstrong has his work cut out for him. However, while the DUP are clearly learning vote management lessons, to gain a seat here will require extraordinarily good balancing. Between that and the fact that the UKUP have a local candidate in Walter Millar, a Sandholes-based farmer who represented the DUP on Cookstown Council from 1985 to 1993, there are two barriers to the DUP pulling off a gain. DUP activists will point out that the political trajectory of Millar, once a member of the Ulster Independence Movement and now a candidate for the integrationist UKUP, is a little eccentric. That might well be, but there is clearly potential for a candidate in this area opposed to a deal with Republicans - it is precisely that section of the electorate that has given the DUP such a strong platform here for so long. But this is another seriously close one.

To round out the ballot, this is usually Alliance's second worst seat after West Belfast - Margaret Marshall may have Tyrone roots but she lives in South Belfast, so expect little change there. Independent Harry Hutchinson was once an Alliance election candidate too, but had a fall out with them in the late 1980s and now pops up from time to time as an Independent candidate on the far left, and usually taking votes in double figures. None of the minor parties are taking on the big partisan blocs in Mid Ulster - even the Workers' Party have now stopped fighting elections here.

2003 vote - SF 45.5%/3.19Q, DUP 20.8%/1.46Q, SDLP 18.3%/1.28Q, UUP 14.4%/1.00Q, Workers' Party 0.5%/0.04Q, Alliance 0.4%/0.03Q.

Candidates - SF: Martin McGUINNESS*, Francie MOLLOY*, Michelle O'NEILL. DUP: Elizabeth FORDE, Ian McCREA. SDLP: Kathleen LAGAN, Patsy McGLONE*. UUP: Billy ARMSTRONG*. Alliance: Margaret MARSHALL. UKUP: Walter MILLAR. Republican Sinn Féin+: Brendan McLAUGHLIN. Ind: Harry HUTCHINSON. (*=Sitting MLA;+=Will appear on the ballot paper without a party description)

Prediction: 3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 SDLP, 1 UUP.
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