I have mentioned my thoughts on the TUV and CUs over on slugger and will come to the DUP (and hopefully the others) in time. However, although I quoted Harold McCusker regarding the TUV (“I felt desolate because as I stood in the cold …..everything that I held dear turned to ashes in my mouth.”); yesterday afternoon when Fermanagh South Tyrone was announced I was even more heartbroken. It may be difficult for outsiders to understand at times but it is an issue of huge importance down here who wins this seat. As ever this being Fermanagh everyone at work was utterly polite to one another: however, as soon as there were members of one side everyone wondered how the recount was going. I may be a South Londonderry blow in but the way the local unionist population demanded a unity candidate and forced the DUP and then UUP to agree to one was fascinating and also personally energising (I openly acknowledge I am extremely tribal in my political analysis: I much prefer fighting unionism’s enemies than other unionists). The fact is that this unionist community suffered more than almost any other at the hands of the IRA. It is also a fact that almost never was there any loyalist retaliation in Fermanagh and loyalist terrorists are held by all local unionists in the same quiet, calm but icy contempt as republican ones. Call these people bigots all you want from the safety of the greater Belfast Pale: these people know what republican violence is, that informs their views and they wanted the cheerleader that is Gildernew out.
The fact that this constituency with its very large and put upon unionist minority has had an MP who is amongst the most open terrorist cheerleaders is felt deeply in FST. Her image may be as a friendly, bubbly mumsy: a sort of brunette Naomi Long with less competence but not the irritating preachiness. However, the actual reality is that Michelle Gildernew has suggested that future republicans might “have to” return to violence which in border areas very simply means murder their Protestant neighbours for being Protestants. In addition she has suggested that people should not go to the security forces over certain crimes and has made a habit of glorifying assorted terrorists. As I said previously for unionists to unite to try to oust such an overwhelmingly sectarian figure was not itself sectarian.
Privately as those with whom I have discussed it know, I thought all along we would lose. I expected the SDLP collapse to be at least as bad as it was: indeed it could well have been worse. This is the seat which less than a generation ago was willing to elect Bobby Sands and immediately after that Owen Carron: the SDLP vote was always weak. However, provided some few SDLP voters could not stomach the cheerleader in chief that is Gildernew it could still have been won. The simple reality is that Rodney Connor polled 1625 votes less than the combined unionist total last time whilst the total nationalist / republican vote was only 990 down. It is fairly clear that some unionists, mainly harder line ones did not come out to vote and apparently about a dozen ballots were spoiled with “Vote TUV” written on them. Some unionist commentators on slugger have suggested that the problem was running what they call a “communal” candidate. To suggest that as the cause shows a fundamental failure to understand Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It might have affected a tiny fraction of those 1625 but most will have failed to vote because they thought Rodney too liberal.
Rodney Connor was a good candidate: a moderate unionist with a track record of hard work for the whole of the population of Fermanagh whilst the council chief executive. However, through no fault of his own he was the wrong candidate and it was the wrong campaign.
As soon as he emerged Rodney Connor was tarred as the sectarian candidate by Sinn Fein which as I observed previously was the cesspit calling the operating theatre unhygienic. Connor seemed genuinely hurt by this slur and tried to insist that he wanted everyone’s votes: the problem is he truly seemed to think it might happen. That is almost touching in its naivety but in other circumstances it might have been reasonable.
Had unionists wanted to run a moderate unionist unity candidate like Rodney Connor who would cause minimal offence to (and ideally gain the votes of) nationalists they should have selected him months ago and spent a prolonged period explaining that the issue was about the unacceptability of Gildernew’s views but also her multiple jobbing, non appearance at the parliament to which she was elected and her actually generally poor record of representation. Had they done that for a prolonged period it might have garnered some nationalist votes and might have reduced the SDLP meltdown: might have, but I am not convinced. A prolonged campaign would also have prepared the unionist electorate to vote for Connor en masse.
This may be anecdotal but large numbers of harder line unionists here in Fermanagh (and even some more moderate voices) told me they found voting for Connor a bit difficult. He did not proclaim himself as a unionist and they felt that he was too liberal. The ones I have spoken to all claim to have voted (and knowing them I believe that absolutely). However, there will undoubtedly be some who did not vote; we also have the evidence of some spoiled ballot papers. I do not in any way blame Rodney Connor for being a liberal and a liberal, Ken Maginnis, held this seat for years. However, if the unity candidate was to be a liberal the electorate should have known him better and okay let us be honest the hard liners would have needed a bit of time to decide to vote for him.
Since the decision to go for a unity candidate was made late the candidate should have been rather more of the colours nailed to the mast, hard liner variety: again something I mentioned to a number of people in the run up to the election. It was clear that Sinn Fein were going to run a sectarian campaign and try to tar the unionist candidate as sectarian. If the time was short unionists should have reciprocated and made much of Gildernew’s sectarian position regarding the IRA’s campaign of murder here in Fermanagh: pictures of the war memorial in 1987 should have been on the election literature. Gildernew clearly wanted to play the sectarian card and it could easily have been thrown right back at her with added interest. The problem with that was of course two fold: Rodney Connor is not that type of man, he is too nice; secondly the Conservatives would not have worn it and they were the reason the unity decision ended up being made so late. Keeping the Conservatives happy meant that Connor’s campaign had to be left quite mild; he might have been willing to push the unionist buttons more positively had he not needed to keep the Tories happy but that is not certain.
The Tory problems had already prevented Norman Baxter being run and many suspect he might have been a better late candidate. Hence, the FST campaign was handicapped by the need to avoid tarnishing the CU’s shiny non sectarian image. This was paramount to ensure maximum CU gain of Catholic votes and garden centre unionists to ensure multiple victories in other seats: and we all know how successful that was. The conceit of the Tories therefore helped ensure that the FST campaign was hobbled by having to decide on a candidate late and then him being the correct candidate for an early unity decision and the wrong one for a late decision. The Conservative line that the DUP should have stood aside to give them a free run was of course shown to be utter nonsense by the annihilation of the party in the rest of Northern Ireland though ironically Tom Elliott might well have done well here against Arlene Foster. Elliott, however, was willing to step aside from an early stage which shows admirable leadership from him.
The reality is that many people are to blame for the failure of Rodney Connor to take FST and Rodney himself is amongst the least of them. It was a problematic set of circumstances which mitigated against Rodney and despite the received wisdom from the UUP and DUP my guess was always that the chances of victory were 60:40 against. It is reasonable to ask whether FST can now ever be retaken for unionism and certainly many unionists seem almost inconsolable: I certainly felt that way yesterday. However, I would suggest that this seat is winnable and we should try again. You can take inspiration from Robert the Bruce’s spider or Rudyard Kipling’s IF but this seat can be won. Next time be that in a few months or five years there needs to be a candidate identified well in advance; there needs to be even more involvement from the unionist parties on a province wide basis. In addition the local UUP and DUP should identify liaison people who will together coordinate this campaign when it comes: these people need to become friends and a team; not rivals forced together at the last minute. Then when the election comes no stone must be left unturned in energising the unionist population of FST. It may not work: who knows. However, we must never let the cheerleader in chief who is our non MP rest easy that her seat is safe: if nothing else it distracts SF resources from elsewhere. In addition one day a unionist will stand on that stage as victor. We owe that to the memories of those whose murders Michelle Gildernew supports. Our revenge will be our laughter on that day. And if all that makes me almost as sectarian as Gildernew, albeit without the support for murder: frankly I don’t give a damn. You do not see comments like this from me too often but: No Surrender.