Who will contest the West Tyrone by-election?

18 January 2018 - by Denise McAnena

The voters of West Tyrone face another trip to the polls, this time for a by-election after Barry McElduff's resignation.

After getting to grips with her new brief, Secretary of State Karen Bradley, along with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, announced today that talks to restore an Executive will resume on 24 January.

Relations between the parties have become increasingly strained in recent weeks owing to Barry McElduff’s much discussed video on social media.

McElduff resigned as MP for West Tyrone earlier this week, saying that he “does not wish to be a barrier to reconciliation”. This may ease these tensions somewhat, and also affords Sinn Féin an opportunity to test its “red line” political strategy in a “safe seat”, given its majority of over 20,000 votes and 50.7 per cent share of the vote.

This means that the voters of West Tyrone face another trip to the polls, this time for a by-election. Speculation is mounting as to the names appearing on the ballot paper.

A rural constituency and a long-time Sinn Féin stronghold, the party currently holds three of the five Assembly seats and may look to its Stormont team for a candidate. Declan McAleer, speaking on Radio Foyle this week, said he was content in his role as an MLA and agriculture spokesperson, but that it was up to the party to decide. Catherine Kelly, a former staffer to McElduff, is yet to contest an election having being co-opted to replace him in the Assembly in June. The trio is completed by Michaela Boyle. Each is popular in his or her respective area but none have as high a profile as the one enjoyed by McElduff throughout the constituency and beyond.

Former Assembly candidate Grace McDermott polled well in the 2016 poll, coming close to gaining a fourth Sinn Féin seat and may choose to run again. That said, the party may yet look outside the boundaries of the constituency for a nominee. The people of West Tyrone are well accustomed to having a non-native representative after Donegal man Pat Doherty’s 16-year tenure as MP prior to McElduff. Might the name McGuinness return to polling cards if one of the late Martin McGuinness’s children choose to follow their father into politics?

The UUP, which has struggled here since the departure of Ross Hussey, has expressed interest in a unity candidate. Other parties have, however, played down that idea.

The SDLP is likely to put forward Daniel McCrossan MLA once again and regular Alliance candidate Stephen Donnelly, who has been steadily increasing his vote in the constituency, may well contest another election to continue building his profile. The DUP could put forward MLA Tom Buchanan following his second-place finish behind McElduff in the last Westminster contest.

Meanwhile, Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife in the Omagh bomb, has said that he would “love to stand” for election and feels he would have the support of victims. It will be interesting to see if he can gather momentum behind him given the circumstances.

It is expected to be March before a by-election takes place, which is normally triggered by the chief whip of the political party whose MP held the vacant seat. However, as Sinn Féin doesn’t take it seats in Westminster, it will likely fall to the government’s chief whip to trigger the process, as happened in 2011 following Gerry Adams’s resignation in Belfast West.