Candidates in UK’s most westerly constituency divided on Brexit and the Union

By David Young, PA

A Sinn Fein candidate in one of Northern Ireland’s hardest-fought election battlegrounds has predicted that unionist farmers will help her retain the seat.

Michelle Gildernew insisted many pro-Remain unionists in Fermanagh and South Tyrone see her as a better option than her Leave-voting unionist rival, Tom Elliott.

Ulster Unionist Mr Elliott, a unionist farmer himself, said he is still a “soft” leaver but agrees with his new party leader, Steve Aiken, that remaining in the EU would be better than the terms of the withdrawal deal.

However, he believes a no-deal exit would also be preferable to the proposed UK/EU agreement.

With the constituency having been decided by the narrowest of margins in recent history – a solitary vote in 2010 and just 53 in 2001 – incumbent MP Ms Gildernew claims the backing of pro-Union voters could be key on December 12.

“The Brexit thing is having an impact and people who maybe still wouldn’t necessarily agree with me on a constitutional position, agree with what I’m saying and what Sinn Fein are saying on the Brexit issue and they will vote,” she said.

“People are really, really concerned. Unionist farmers are looking at their future in a post-Brexit UK, and they’re frightened, and they’ve very good right to be.”

The republican went a step further, claiming some of those same unionists are also now reconsidering their views on the Union itself.

“People who couldn’t comprehend it a few years ago are genuinely examining it and asking themselves those questions now and that’s very healthy, that’s to be welcomed,” she said.

“And Brexit has done that. People now know, if I have to choose which union I am going to be part of, I might pick the European Union in a united Ireland rather than the Union with Brexit.”

Tom Eillott is back on the campaign trail having taken a step back from the political front line following his defeat in the 2017 election (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Elliott, who won the seat from Ms Gildernew in 2015, only to see her regain it in 2017, naturally offers a very different analysis of the contest.

He does not believe Brexit is the issue per se, rather the length of time the process of leaving the EU has taken.

“The difficulty is how long it has taken to get there,” he said.

“I always felt there was an easier resolution to the whole Brexit issue – and that was by the European Union giving special status to the Republic of Ireland to trade freely with a UK which includes Northern Ireland, and vice versa, and I think that would have resolved a lot of issues because we are two islands. They would have been a much simpler outcome to it.”

Mr Elliott backed Leave in 2016 despite his party’s pro-Remain stance.

After the referendum, the UUP changed position and urged support for an EU exit, insisting the democratic vote had to be respected.

It has since moved again, with recently-appointed Mr Aiken signalling a return to a pro-Remain position, arguing that staying in the EU would be much better than leaving on the terms agreed by the Prime Minister.

There has been speculation over whether Mr Elliott is in tune with his new leader.

He said he agrees that remaining would be better than Boris Johnson’s deal, but adds a caveat – that a no-deal exit would also be preferable to the current deal.

“Boris Johnson’s deal is a bad deal for Northern Ireland overall, economically and for businesses, simply because it puts a regulatory position between Northern Ireland and GB and that’s difficult, that’s difficult for businesses today,” he said.

“So I have to say I don’t like Boris Johnson’s deal and I think, probably, in the end I would prefer almost any deal apart from it, including to remain or including, in the end, no deal at all, because, you know, it’s just not a good deal overall.”

Michelle Gildernew chats with beauty salon owner Colleen Loughran while canvassing in Dungannon (Liam McBurney/PA)

For the fourth General Election in a row, the DUP has stood aside in the constituency.

The party backed a unionist independent in 2010 but in 2015 and 2017 it supported the UUP as part of wider pacts which saw the Ulster Unionists reciprocate elsewhere in the region.

It has made for a somewhat awkward alliance in Fermanagh, given that current DUP leader Arlene Foster is a local MLA who defected from the UUP in acrimonious circumstances back in 2004.

This time round, the current Brexit deal is another factor that could make for an uneasy link-up.

The UUP has been highly critical of the DUP’s handling of its Westminster partnership with the Conservatives, claiming it only served to deliver a deal that could spell disaster for the Union.

And while the DUP remains committed, publicly at least, to Brexit, the UUP is now aligning itself with the Remain side of the debate.

Mr Elliott rejects the suggestion that the tie-up with the Democratic Unionists undercuts his party’s efforts to blame them over Brexit.

Countering Ms Gildernew’s assertion that unionists will decide their vote on Brexit, Mr Elliott believes the preservation of the Union will trump all other issues, and see UUP and DUP voters unite behind him.

“Clearly what people recognise is, above all, the union of the United Kingdom is the most important thing here,” he said.

“What we want to do is try to ensure that we maintain that, that we strengthen that and we build on that because we’re part of the fifth largest economy in the world being part of the United Kingdom.”

Tom Elliott talks to with antique shop owner Ian Black while canvassing in Enniskillen (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Elliott claims Sinn Fein’s Westminster abstentionist policy is also a turn-off for voters in the UK’s most westerly constituency; voters he claims crave proper representation to deal with issues such as spiralling hospital waiting times.

It is an argument Ms Gildernew dismisses, insisting that Sinn Fein’s seven MPs would not have made a “button of difference” in any of the Commons votes on Brexit.

“If we had gone into some of those votes, took the oath of allegiance to the British Queen and went in and voted, the seven of us would have been ruled out by seven or 17 or 70 people who had decided to go one way and then refused to go into the same voting lobbies as us.

“I think it would have been counter-productive. And I think we wouldn’t have made a difference.

“English MPs wouldn’t have let Irish MPs change the course of English history.”

She said her party has instead made its voice count where it “matters” – Dublin, Brussels and Washington.

Since his defeat in 2017, Mr Elliott has stepped away from the political spotlight, dividing his time between his farm, working part-time in the UUP’s Enniskillen office and his role as chairman of his beloved Ballinamallard FC.

He insists his return to the political fast lane is not a reluctant one.

“I’m someone who’s fairly practical and I get on with whatever I’m doing,” he said.

“Whenever I was involved in frontline politics, you put your heart and soul into it and put everything into it, and once you’re out of it you get on with other things, so obviously I’m having a go at getting back in.

“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but I’ll make a go of whatever it is.”

The other candidates running in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are the SDLP’s Adam Gannon, the Alliance Party’s Matthew Beaumont, and independent Caroline Wheeler.