sammymorse (sammymorse) wrote,

2007 Assembly Election Guide: Constituency No. 18 of 18 - West Tyrone

map 1
Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte

West Tyrone consists of all of two districts, Omagh and Strabane. It was the new, 18th, constituency created by the Boundary Commissioners in their 1998 review, although in some ways bears more resemblance to the traditional Mid Ulster than the constituency that bears that name today.

West Tyrone is a sprawling, sparsely populated constituency, although the bulk of the population lives in the river valleys of the Foyle, Derg, Mourne, Glenelly and Strule. As well as Omagh and Strabane themselves, the main towns and villages are Castlederg, Sion Mills, Newtownstewart, Artigarvan, Donemana, Plumbridge, Gortin, Greencastle, Carrickmore, Beragh, Sixmilecross, Fintona, Dromore and Drumquin.

Socio-economically, this area lags well behind the Northern Ireland average, being the 4th or 5th most deprived constituency depending on the measure. Strabane, the second largest town in the constituency, has always had something of a reputation for poverty and unemployment, and although a more pleasant place than its reputation implies, regularly makes it into the Top 10 of the list of the UK's 'Crap Towns'. And indeed four of the town's seven Super Output Areas make it into Northern Ireland's top fifth. However, the real feature of note is the area from Newtownstewart over to Castlederg, and thence up the Derg valley to the border, as well as along the border to Strabane town itself. This is the largest concentration rural poverty in Northern Ireland by far. Donemana is also in the poorest fifth of Northern Ireland communities, and many of the other rural areas in Strabane District just miss being included in this threshold. Even the wealthiest output area in Strabane District, the new private estates along the Melmount Road in the town itself, doesn't quite make it up to the Northern Ireland average.

Omagh district also has its concentrations of poverty too, particularly in the estates around Lisanelly Heights and the Strathroy Road. However, on balance Omagh is a more prosperous area than Strabane. The more marginal land in the east of the district around Carrickmore and Greencastle, and in the west around Dromore and Fintona, have considerably higher than average levels of deprivation, while the rural area around Omagh and most of the town itself lie close to the regional average. Nowhere in West Tyrone, however, comes close to making it on the list of Northern Ireland's wealthiest areas, even in Omagh Town's leafier avenues.

At 1.90, the total fertility rate is a little over the average of 1.80, although below the replacement level of 2.10. It is noticeably lower in the older parts of the main towns, although other than that there is little pattern to be distinguished. On balance, it tends to be higher in Catholic areas but there isn't all that much in it.

Overall this is the 3rd most Catholic constituency after West Belfast and Foyle. As is true in much of the west, the Catholic population is concentrated in the poorer highlands, the Protestant population in the valleys, and the larger towns have become noticeably more Catholic in the past generation, driving the demographic shift. Although Unionists have never controlled Omagh District Council, in Strabane Unionists were able to control the Council through the Chairman's casting vote as recently as 1997 under the legendary/notorious (delete to taste) Edward Turner.

Omagh Town has demographics close to the constituency average (68% Catholic) and is a fairly heterogeneous mix of Catholic, Protestant and mixed areas, with the Protestant population highest in the south-eastern corner of the town, along the Beragh Road. Strabane is overwhelmingly Catholic (93%) with the bulk of the Protestant population in that built up area in next door Sion Mills (62% Catholic).

In other main towns and villages in the constituency, the Catholic population is as follows: Castlederg 56%, Fintona 72%, Newtownstewart 55%, Dromore 85%, Artigarvan 7%, Ballymagorry 44%, Donemana 15%, Carrickmore 98% and Beragh 63%. By far the highest concentration of Protestants in the constituency is in the far North, between Strabane and the county boundary, in the valley of the Fairy Water running from Omagh far to the west, and between Omagh and Beragh.

West Tyrone produced the shock of the 2003 election, with Independent hospital campaigner Kieran Deeny coming from nowhere to top the poll and be elected on the first count. Deeny picked up a seat from the SDLP, although it was one that many people were expecting the SDLP to lose in any event, with Sinn Féin being the expected beneficiaries. The final result was 2 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP, 1 DUP, 1 UUP and 1 Independent. Nicholas Whyte's figures show exactly where Deeny's transfers went, and settle the argument about who lost out: although the biggest single source of Deeny's votes seem to have been from habitual SDLP voters, he took 1808 votes from Sinn Féin, which would have been enough to see Sinn Féin pass the three quota mark by 33 votes. Sinn Féin's Brian McMahon was indeed the victim of Dr. Deeny's surge.

Relatively few of Deeny's votes came from unionists in the last Assembly election, and there are comfortably two Unionist quotas here. The DUP would claim an outside chance of winning two seats here, although in the local elections they out polled the UUP by only 19% to 14%, which would see both parties retain a single seat. In the General Election, the UUP vote collapsed due to tactical voting for Kieran Deeny, and it would be wrong to read too much into that, although it will be interesting to see if any of these voters stay with Deeny.

The DUP have a good geographical balance here, with Drumquin-based sitting MLA and four term councillor Tom Buchanan being joined by Sion Mills-based Councillor Alan Bresland. The UUP are running Derek Hussey, a five term councillor based in Castlederg, seeking his third term in the Assembly. Hussey ought to be well enough established to hang on here even in a bad year for the UUP. If he does lose, it will be a sign of a real UUP collapse. The odds favour no change among Unionists, either in party representation or in personnel. Bob McCartney is running here among other places, although he must be odds-on favourite to pick up the West Tyrone wooden spoon prize.

Sinn Féin ran a tight strategy last time and must have been gutted to see the third seat elude them. This time, their two sitting MLAs - Pat Doherty MP and long-standing Omagh stalwart Barry McElduff - will be joined by Claire McGill, a Councillor from outside Donemana. Can Sinn Féin take three here? Much depends on Deeny. In the local elections in 2005, they polled 43.4%, or about 3.04 quotas. However, the general election indicated about 1800 people voting for Deeny but voting for Sinn Féin candidates in the local elections - a remarkably similar figure to the number of Deeny to Sinn Féin transfers in 2003. A similar number this year would see Sinn Féin likely to fall short, especially given their difficulty in securing transfers - Brian McMahon picked up barely 100 votes in the 2003 count.

A further difficulty is the risk of over-balancing. Doherty and McElduff are both top tier, or at least upper second tier, Sinn Féin spokespeople. McGill does not strike me as being made of the same stuff. Losing either McElduff or Doherty would be a reverse for Sinn Féin, so they will have to fight slightly shy of managing these candidates down too much.

A further factor queering Sinn Féin's pitch is the presence of Republican Sinn Féin's Joe O'Neill on the ballot. There has been much less dissension within Sinn Féin in West Tyrone than in other places; nonetheless there are some traditional 'heartland' areas where he might resonate with some people. Derg and Mid Tyrone electoral areas are two of a handful outside Belfast where Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP in every pre-ceasefire council election. I don't expect him to poll anything like well enough to win a seat, but if margins are tight a few hundred non-transferred votes lost to O'Neill might be crucial.

The one saving grace for Sinn Féin is that the SDLP seem to be on a suicide mission here. The SDLP polled 14.6% in the 2003 election, 17.9% in the 2005 locals and 9.1% in the 2005 Westminster election. Starting from that base, one might have thought that running one candidate was the smartest way of defending the seat. Instead, the SDLP deselected sitting two term MLA, Strabane-based Eugene McMenamin at a fractious selection meeting and selected two Omagh based candidates in Councillors Jo Deehan and Séamus Shields. However, after it was all over, the SDLP's Executive added McMenamin back onto the ticket, and so the SDLP will have three candidates chasing a bare quota, surely the most gratuitous case of overnomination anywhere. With so much bad blood between candidates, there's always the danger that a significant number of transfers from eliminated candidates could leach off to Deeny or Sinn Féin.

This spoils what might have been a very clever strategy - Dr. Jo Deehan is an Omagh GP and may be able to draw some of Deeny's sting. But attempting to deselect McMenamin in favour of Shields was a bridge too far. If the SDLP lose their seat here, they have only themselves to blame.

Finally, there's Deeny himself. It's anyone's guess how he might poll. After his already strong showing of 14.8%, he ramped his vote up to 27.4% in the 2005 General Election, although this was doubtless inflated by anti-Sinn Féin tactical voting. Since then, the hospital issue seems to have lost some steam and at least one of the Independent councillors who had backed Deeny previously seems to have transferred his support to the SDLP. At the same time Deeny polled 11,905 just 22 months ago. Given the SDLP's freefall, if he can hold even a third of them, he should be able to scrape in.

With Alliance declining to field a candidate against Deeny, he is the only non-aligned candidate on the ballot paper here. No Tories, Greens or Rainbow Georges here.

Deeny's vote is so unquantifiable that it makes predicting this constituency very difficult indeed. I find it hard to believe that having polled 27.4% of the vote less than two years ago, that he can fail to be elected. The question then is who loses out? The 2005 figures would indicate that there were still about 1800 people who would normally vote for Sinn Féin who were prepared to vote for Deeny then, and along with the presence of RSF, that should be enough to stop Sinn Féin taking three seats, although the SDLP are playing with fire by running three candidates. My call is for no change, but it's really anyone's guess and it's entirely possible that SF could gain three, either at the expense of Deeny or of the SDLP, who would then face the embarrassment of being wiped out in their 'Stalingrad'.

2003 vote - Sinn Féín 38.6%/2.70Q, DUP 17.5%/1.22Q, SDLP 14.6%/1.02Q, UUP 13.6%/0.95Q, PUP 0.6%/0.04Q, Alliance 0.4%/0.03Q, Ind 14.8%/1.03Q.

Candidates - Sinn Féin: Pat DOHERTY*, Barry McELDUFF*, Calire McGILL. DUP: Alan BRESLAND, Thomas BUCHANAN*. SDLP: Jo DEENAN, Eugene McMENAMIN*, Seamus SHIELDS. UUP: Derek HUSSEY*. UKUP: Bob McCARTNEY. Republican SF+: Joe O'NEILL. Independent: Kieran DEENY. (*=Sitting MLA; += Will appear on the ballot without a party label)

Prediction: 2 Sinn Féín, 1 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 Independent, 1 SDLP.
Tags: 2007 constituency profiles, assembly 2007, elections, northern ireland, politics

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