Monday, May 31, 2010

Dreary steeples: 2

Fermanagh & South Tyrone ... yet again

If there is a competition for the most MPs (some eleven — which might yet reach the round dozen — over six decades) elected by a single constituency, in the shortest period of time, this one deserves consideration.

It is a vast rural stretch (see wikipedia's diagram, right). To the east it oh-so-nearly doesn't quite touch Lough Neagh. At the other end a finger-tip stretches for Bradoge Bridge, where the townland of Manger is the UK's Wild West (apart from sweet Rockall). In that fastness we are barely a spit-and-jump out of Bundoran.

Equally, politics is a weird business, wherein strange near-approximations to human life survive and prosper. But, for a prime selection of bizarre candidates over the years, this one has to be a runner. As Gawin Douglas said of his Eneados of 1513 (and Burns prefixed as the text above Tam O'Shanter):
Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke.
Here's the sequence:
  • 1950 General Election: Cahir Healy (an interesting character, who will inspire a subsequent post).
  • 1951 General Election: still Cahir Healy, holding the seat on an increased majority of 2,635 out of 62,797 votes (an astounding 93.4% turn-out).
  • 1955 General Election: Philip Clarke taking the seat for Sinn Féin by 261 votes in a straight fight;
  • August 1955: an electoral court disqualified Clarke as a convicted felon (doing time for IRA activities) and awarded the seat to his defeated opponent, Lord Robert Grosvenor (later the 5th Duke of Westminster).
  • 1959 General Election 1959 Grosvenor held the seat with a huge majority over Sinn Féin.
  • 1964 General Election: James Hamilton, the Marquess of Hamilton (cousin of Grosvenor, and a major landowner in the constituency) saw off Aloysius Mulloy, standing as an "Independent Republican". NILP and Liberals split the vote.
  • 1966 General Election: the nationalist vote was split by a "Unity" candidate (J.J.Donnelly) and Sinn Féin's Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. Even so, Hamilton was back on a plurality.
  • 1970 General Election: Frank McManus stood as a "Unity" candidate, and took the seat off Hamilton. There was again a remarkable turn-out: over 92%. Not many were deceived by MacManus's anodyne party label: one brother, Pat, was killed in an IRA "own-goal" bombing in 1958; another is Father Seán McManus of the Redemptorists, founder of the Irish National Caucus.
  • In the first election of 1974, the nationalist vote was shared pretty evenly between McManus and Denis Haughey (the SDLP's long-term, all-purpose man-beyond-the-Bann). This let the sulphurous Harry West in for the Unionists.
  • October 1974: Frank Maguire (an "Independent Republican") cleaned up, 2,500 ahead of West, with a nugatory Maoist in for a laugh. Maguire had been the IRA Commander in Crumlin Road gaol, during internment. Even so, he was not a total abstentionist: famously he attended the last rites of the Callaghan government in 1979, to "abstain in person".
  • 1979 General Election: Maguire was returned despite a four way split (with an Alliance candidate making up the numbers). Austin Currie, as an "independent SDLP" candidate creamed off over 10,000 nationalist votes, but Ernest Baird, the chemist and hatchetman for the Vanguard Unionist rump, did the same for the unionist vote.
  • Frank Maguire's death in March, 1981, caused a famous by-election. Bobby Sands, on hunger strike in the H-blocks, squeezed past Harry West in a "straight" fight (thoughthere was little straight about the campaigning). Sands was dead four weeks later.
  • So a further by-election was held in the August. Since the law had changed, to prevent prisoners being nominated as candidates, Owen Carron (who had run Sands's campaign) won as the Anti-H blocks candidate (and as an abstentionist) over Ken Maginnis.
  • 1983 General Election: the SDLP put up Rosemary Flanagan, split Carron's nationalist support, and let Maginnis in. With SDLP continuing the split for the next four elections (the Unionist mass resignations causing 1986 by-elections and then the 1987, 1993, 1997 General Elections) Maginnis was re-elected, until he stood down for 2001 and went to the Lords. Perhaps Maginnis was recognising that the 1997 redistribution had moved the constituency fractionally in favour of the nationalists.
  • In 2001, again on a four way split, Michelle Gildernew was the faintest scintilla of a nose (just 53 votes) ahead of James Cooper for the UUP. That was despite the ever-present GAA-man Tommy Gallagher putting up for the SDLP (his third of four successive runs) and hoovering up ten thousand votes.
  • 2005 General Election: Michelle Gildernew had an easy ride, and a 4,500 majority, for Sinn Féin. This was because Arlene Foster inervened to take 14,000 for the DUP, pushing the UUP Councillor Tom Elliott MLA (who had been Cooper's agent in 2001, and should have known better) into third.
  • This time round, 2010, was the cliff-hanger. After much pushing-and-shoving, the DUP and UUP agreed Rodney Connor as an "independent Unionist". Since Cameron had made his daft commitment that the Tories be represented in every constituency, this involved a face-saving formula of words, that Connor would take the Whip on all non-constityency matters. Meanwhile, Fearghal McKinney, a transplant from Derry (not always a route to popularity in these parts) and local journo, thrust himself forward as the the SDLP candidate. Predictably he was squeezed out of serious contention. Even so, his 3,500 votes threatened Gildernew. After multiple recounts Gildernew was elected by just four votes. Connor was incandescent at the declaration, and is now pursuing his complaint through an electoral court.
Little of that will come new to anyone interested in this neck of the backwoods. Fermanagh & South Tyrone's shenanigans go through west-of-the-Bann political life the way letters go through seaside rock. Such recitals, though, help memory to be refreshed.

Malcolm, at the head of this posting, reached for Burns's Tam O'Shanter and Gawin Douglas on his Aeneid. That conceit now seems appropriate, for all sorts of reasons (some geophysical, some personal) when:
We think ... on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
In Fermanagh & South Tyrone, even more than the generality of Northern Ireland's politics, wrath is warm, and revenge is eaten cold.
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