Battle For West Tyrone

The battle for West Tyrone will either be a damp squib or a political earthquake. Controversial commentator Dr John Coulter uses his Fearless Flying Column today to analyse how Sinn Fein can retain what should be a safe republican seat in the forthcoming Westminster by-election.

Radical moderate - the Ulster Unionist Party’s new magical buzzword - is how Sinn Fein should rebrand itself in its West Tyrone Commons bolthole as the republican movement tries to work out how to clean up the mess left in the wake of ex-MP Barry McElduff’s bread tweet.

On paper, any Westminster election in West Tyrone should be a political walk in the park for Sinn Fein, as last time out McElduff polled more votes than the other candidates put together. Long gone are the days when a Unionist candidate - Willie Thompson - could sneak up the middle with a virtually evenly split nationalist vote between Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

As with Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Newry and Armagh and South Down - all once Unionist marginals - Sinn Fein has wiped the political floor with the SDLP. Moderate nationalism has been crushed by the Provos apologist party.

In spite of the backlash against the McElduff tweet, his shock resignation has more to do with Sinn Fein’s image in the republic than making amends for any perceived jibe about the Kingsmill massacre.

If Sinn Fein was genuine about being remorseful about Kingsmill, the republican movement would hand over details which would at least publicly identify those responsible for the brutal murders of 10 Protestant workmen and the severe wounding of the lone survivor; it could also give details of the IRA gunmen so that firm convictions could be achieved in court. But Sinn Fein don’t do political touting so giving up the names publicly of the Kingsmill killers is a non-starter.

However, its not just a general election in the Dail which Sinn Fein has now to worry about - there’s the awkward centenary of the formation of the anti-Treaty movement and the subsequent Civil War which saw republican brother butcher republican brother in incidents which made the previous conflict with the Black and Tans seem like a Sunday School picnic.

More IRA members were executed by Free State forces than by the Tans during the earlier War of Independence. Almost 100 years since that bloody Civil War, the bitterness between pro and anti Treaty families still runs deep. Long gone, too, are the days when Sinn Fein could clinch the vast majority of Irish Commons seats when the island was entirely under British rule.

For generations after the Civil War, Sinn Fein was nothing more than a fringe movement, bordering on becoming a social club to remember those jailed and executed by the British in the wake of the doomed Easter Rising.

The breakthrough came when former West Belfast MP Gerry Adams decided to move south and become a Louth TD. He has managed to convince Southern voters that the Shinners are not another communist party in disguise, but can be seen as a potential government partner in Leinster House with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.

Gone, too, are the days when the majority of Sinn Fein candidates had to have served an apprenticeship in the IRA. Smart suits have replaced the traditional fluffy pullovers. The new breed of politically well groomed ‘draft dodgers’ could even deliver a competent spin on Sinn Fein’s IRA past - and present.

But that was all before the disastrous McElduff tweet saga. Sinn Fein needs to select a candidate, not for the folk of West Tyrone, but to convince Southern voters the party can still be trusted. This is why Sinn Fein needs an Ulster Unionist-style ‘radical moderate’ (whatever that is!) Presumably, a ‘radical moderate’ is someone who is Right-wing on constitutional issues, but takes a clear Leftist position on bread and butter issues. So how does this ‘radical moderate’ translate into a decent Sinn Fein candidate?

The person needs to be a God-fearing (none of this trendy atheistic republican socialist nonsense peddled by James Connolly’s communist Irish Socialist Republican Party of the early 20th century) middle class Mass-attending Catholic with a maintained grammar and university education, holding a professional job in society. Sinn Fein must swallow its political pride and adopt the ethos - the working class can kiss my ass!

It would also help if the person selected - and eventually elected - could take their Commons seat as TDs do in the Dail, MEPs do at the European Parliament, and MLAs do - or did - at Stormont. After all, if a Sinn Fein Minister can operate in a partitionist parliament in Belfast, surely they could find some form of words which would allow them to take their Commons seats?

Sinn Fein must adopt the brass neck that it can rely on working class Catholics in West Tyrone to turn out in their thousands and shore up its clear majority. But what happens if Sinn Fein’s opponents follow UUP boss Robin Swann’s call for a non-partisan candidate - someone who has lost family to the IRA whether they be Protestant, Catholic, or dissenter?

Realistically, any idea of an SDLP revival as a result of any Sinn Fein backlash is total pie in the sky. And there simply aren’t enough Protestants in West Tyrone to get even a Unionist unity candidate elected. West Tyrone as a Westminster seat in Sinn Fein’s to throw away. It would require a huge error of judgement at a selection panel for this to happen - namely, Sinn Fein to select a hardened convicted IRA killer to go up against a high profile IRA victim, along with a very low turnout in republican strongholds; maybe, just maybe the IRA victim could squeak the seat.

Sinn Fein needs to ensure its next West Tyrone MP could sit just as easily in the Fine Gael or Fianna Fail benches in the Dail as they would at Stormont. This is not a battle to save West Tyrone for republicanism; this is a clear fight to win the hearts and minds of Southern voters.

Sinn Fein is often accused by opponents of trying to rewrite history. Sinn Fein needs to convince those Southern voters - using West Tyrone’s electorate - that it has become a 21st century version of the former dark green but totally democratic Irish Independence Party, once fronted by former British Army officer John Turnley before his murder in Carnlough, Co Antrim, by the UDA in 1980.

Had Turnley lived, there has been much speculation republicanism could have rallied round the IIP as a viable electoral alternate to the SDLP. Ideally, the next Sinn Fein Westminster candidate in West Tyrone should be a ‘John Turnley type’ - a radical moderate from nationalism.

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 

John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.

Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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