A word of warning.

Always expect things to be added slowly to this blog.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Dreary Staples of Fermanagh/South-Tyrone

Okay. We get it. Unionists would just love to win back Fermanagh-South Tyrone. [obviously - I couldn't find a photo of that air punch or it would be linked here!]

Locally, the current generation of unionist activists largely cut their political teeth during the lengthy occupation of the seat by Ken Magennis and under the shadows of Enniskillen. Hence, on one hand, their inability to comprehend how voters could return a Sinn Féin candidate. On the other, Magennis's lengthy residency seems to have allowed the belief to take root that somehow the natural order is simple: the seat must be represented by a unionist. The totemic value of the seat to unionism during the 2010 election revealed much more about the beating heart of unionism than the largely sterile political contributions to the Unionism 2021 series.

First the UCUNF project. Presenting itself as a new strategic departure devoid of sectional interest it wobbled uncertainly around the issue of Catholic candidates on the relatively sensible grounds of tokenism and their low profiles. Any real pretence to such a vision was unsustainable, though, once a unionist unity candidate was agreed explicitly with the DUP. It was also accepted, at least passively, by the supposedly non-conformist TUV whose compliance across various other seats suggested their aggression towards their unionist rivals was as much theatre as politics. Thus any possibility of cross-community convergence on UCUNF was largely sacrificed for Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

Then, there is the photocopied ballots hypothesis. Evidence to the court hearing the legal challenge to the results has heard that an unnamed Sinn Féin worker was handing out photocopied ballot papers in the car park of an Enniskillen polling station. At the same station there were six more ballots in the box than were recorded as having been issued. There is no other possible explanation offered other than that the extra 'ballots' were actually photocopies giving their vote to Michelle Gildernew. So unionists can at least take some cold comfort in knowing that they really won the election.

Perhaps since the court case is ongoing, there has been little public attempt to deconstruct the extreme limitations of this story. No photocopies of ballots found in any of the boxes (nor were any retained by the official who has made this claim). The paper quality and size used are not readily conducive to duplication also making passable copies unlikely. Not only that, but in a first past the post election, parties do not circulate sample ballots to voters like they do when they are managing votes under PR. If someone did manage to produce passable fake ballot papers, it seems unlikely that they would risk passing them out in the carpark of a polling station when they could give them privately and quietly to the chosen few to deposit instead. That unionists at a highly-charged count centre consistently failed to identify such votes among disputed ballots during multiple recounts feels equally unlikely. Short of photocopies turning up among the ballots, it seems unlikely that the court can treat this claim as having any substance.

There are at least two ways of reading this. Either intelligent people, accustomed to unionists holding the seat in the 1980s and 1990s and uncomfortable, to say the least, with a Sinn Féin MP, can genuinely suspend enough disbelief to entertain such an unlikely scenario (having already written down so much political capital for a relatively risky enterprise in the first place). Or, the alternative is that the same people do believe that Sinn Féin voters are stupid enough to either require sample ballots for a first past the post election or would take photocopied ballots publicly in the car park of a polling station and try and place them in a ballot box (which still makes no sense anyway since the numbers of votes wouldn't tally and the discovery of one would prompt a major examination of all ballots etc).

In terms of the future, the substance of the story of how Sinn Féin stole the 2010 election are now firmly in place and will survive my deconstruction and probably an adverse judgement of the courts. In terms of sentiment, there are odd echoes in all this of E.C. Ferguson's comments giving his take on the natural order in the Fermanagh end of the constituency back in 1948:
"The Nationalist majority in the county, i.e., Fermanagh, notwithstanding a reduction of 336 in the year, stands at 3,684. We must ultimately reduce and liquidate that majority. This county, I think it can be safely said, is a Unionist county. The atmosphere is Unionist. The Boards and properties are nearly all controlled by Unionists. But there is still this millstone [the Nationalist majority] around our necks."
Whatever the result of the current court case, a legal millstone of a close result in the constituency is likely to be the staple in the electoral future of Fermanagh-South Tyrone.