Northern Ireland

West Tyrone by-election: Big issues on the doorsteps

rural scene
Image caption West Tyrone is a mainly rural constituency

Voters will return to the polls this week in West Tyrone, in the first by-election of this current parliament.

The seat became vacant after Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff resigned, amid outcry over a video of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head.

It was posted on Twitter on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmills murders, in which 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by the IRA.

Five candidates are standing in Thursday's election, in what will be the fourth by-election in Northern Ireland this century.

West Tyrone was first contested as a constituency in the General Election of 1997.

Then, an Ulster Unionist MP, William Thompson, was returned.

Image caption Infrastructure and broadband are two of the main issues among voters

But four years later, the tide turned and Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty took just shy of 41% of the vote.

When he retired last year, his party colleague, Barry McElduff, held the seat for the party, with almost 51% of the poll.

Not quite a year on from that sweeping victory and just five months after the tweet that brought Barry McElduff down, a by-election is taking place.

Twenty-six year old solicitor Órfhlaith Begley is stepping into the fray, in the belief Sinn Féin party loyalty will help her retain the seat.

'Better infrastructure'

The daughter of a long-serving local councillor, she has been a party activist, canvassing on her father's behalf for many years. She is the only woman on the ballot paper.

"I know the ground in West Tyrone, it's no new territory to me," she said.

"Brexit is the main issue of course, but there are other issues. People want the economy to thrive, people want jobs coming to the area, people want better infrastructure."

Infrastructure has divided the constituency in recent years, with the proposed A5 upgrade delayed by legal challenges and funding issues.

If Órfhlaith Begley wins, she will be the constituency's first female MP, and the fourth occupant of the position in the seat's 21-year history.

Sinn Féin had a majority of more than 10,000 votes over its nearest rival last year.

That rival is the oldest of the five candidates, Tom Buchanan of the DUP.

Image caption The village of Carrickmore is situated in the rural constituency of West Tyrone

A serving MLA and former councillor, he worked in construction before going into politics. While his party has a different take on Brexit, he has heard the same concerns on the doorsteps.

"The main issue in the constituency is infrastructure," he said.

High rate of entrepreneurship

"We have roads infrastructure, we have broadband issues, then we have health issues, we have education issues, we have job creation, and all of those issues are issues facing a rural constituency."

About two-thirds of West Tyrone is rural and the constituency has the highest rate of entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland.

But there are major employers there as well, like IT company Allstate NI, with an office in Strabane, and there is also Asda in Omagh.

About 40% of the businesses in the area are agriculture based.

Broadband presents a huge challenge, with a little more than 70% having access to a superfast service, compared with the Northern Ireland average of more than 87%.

That access varies widely across the constituency.

Thursday will be the fifth time in two years that the polling booths have been dusted off. But there appears to be little sense of voter fatigue among the candidates.

"There's anger at why [this by-election] was called, there's frustration because we've had so many elections recently," said Ulster Unionist candidate Chris Smyth, a councillor on Fermanagh and Omagh District Council.

Image caption The constituency includes the town of Omagh - home to some of the constituency's biggest employers

"But I think there's a real appetite for change, and if I can harness that and be the face of that change, then I think we'll be in a strong position."

Change is in the offing for young people in the Omagh area, with the advent of the Strule Shared Education Campus, on the former Lisnaelly Army barracks site.

But only one school has moved in to it, Arvalee Special School, and work has yet to begin on the construction of the other five schools due to move there.

'Leaders of change'

The scheme has cost £30m, so far, and the date for completion had already been pushed back to September 2021, before one of the bidders pulled out of the tender process earlier this year.

Like the constituency itself, four of the candidates are in their twenties.

"I think that's positive you know," Stephen Donnelly said. The 23-year-old is standing on behalf of the Alliance Party.

"I think the new generations should be coming forward and they should be offering their ideas.

"Ultimately, it is us that are going to be inheriting the world that's coming forward and it's right that we should be the leaders of that change."

The second oldest person on the ballot paper is a veteran of five elections, at the tender age of 29.

Daniel McCrossan of the SDLP split the party when he was first selected in 2016. He is now a sitting MLA and, for him, a key issue is the A5 road proposal that has divided the constituency both physically and emotionally.

"We want to see the A5. It's no secret that I'm very strongly in favour of it and have worked tirelessly to see it," he said.

"But again, in the absence of the assembly, all those things are up in the air. The question for the electorate in this election is very simple, do you want representation or do you not?"

Voting takes place between 07: 00 BST and 22:00 BST on Thursday, 3 May.

For more on the candidates standing in the by-election, click here.

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