More people came out to cast their vote in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in last Thursday’s general election than in the rest of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin were the beneficiaries of the increased turnout, with Michelle Gildernew beating Ulster Unionist Tom Elliot by a margin of 875 votes.

This was a major turn-around from the 2015 general election when Elliott beat Gildernew by 530 votes. On that occasion, Elliott took 23,608 of the 50,864 valid votes, while Gildernew received 23,078 votes. This time, Gildernew took 25,230 of the 53,481 valid votes, while Elliott received 24,355 votes.

A total of 76 per cent of eligible voters in this constituency made their way (or sent a proxy voter) to polling stations in the rain to vote in Theresa May’s snap general election.

This figure was up from 73 per cent at the March Assembly election and up from 64 per cent in the May 2016 Assembly election. At the last General Election in 2015, turnout in FST was 72 per cent.

And while more people are coming out to vote, the statistics show that society remains largely polarised with people voting along sectarian lines.

Three other candidates stood in FST, gaining a combined vote of 3,896. Compared to the 2015 general election, the Green Party’s vote was down by 365 votes, the SDLP was down by 145 and Alliance was up by 228.

Commenting after her defeat, Green Party’s Tanya Jones said: “The hearts and dreams of thousands of young (and less young) people across the UK, who voted, often for the very first time, for hope and change have been broken by Northern Ireland’s myopic constitutional obsessions. And no constituency illustrates the impasse more starkly than my own.”

The issue of proxy and postal voting was to the fore in this election campaign when it emerged that there had been a 49 per cent increase in proxies across Northern Ireland between the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections. The DUP, UUP and SDLP called for a “rigorous” assessment of the proxy and postal system for fear it could be open to electoral fraud.
Electoral Office figures released three days before voting last week showed that the number of proxy voters – people voting on behalf of someone else – in FST had risen by 17 per cent since the last Westminster election, with 1,707 people appointed as proxies. 

This figure was again higher than in any other constituency in Northern Ireland.

In addition, the Electoral Office rejected 259 proxy applications in FST; a move that prompted Sinn Féin MLA Sean Lynch to accuse the it of “denying people their democratic right.”

It is not unusual for turnout in FST to be highest in Northern Ireland. A hotly contested constituency, the margin between unionist and nationalist has historically been tight, particularly in Westminster elections.

In 2010, only four votes separated a victorious Michelle Gildernew and the independent unionist candidate Rodney Connor. After three recounts, Gildernew was elected with 21,304 votes to Connor’s 21,300.

IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands won the FST seat in the 1981 by-election with 30,493 votes to UUP Harry West’s 29,046. He died 26 days later and, the following year Sinn Féin began to contest elections in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Sands is often referenced by republicans when they talk about the FST seat, however, his name was absent from Michelle Gildernew’s victory speech at the Omagh count centre in the early hours of last Friday morning. When she became an MLA back in March, she said: “Elections are tough, some you win, some you lose. I know I was here on an emotional night [in 2015] when the DUP and the UUP got together to take Bobby Sands’ seat off us.” Meanwhile, when Tom Elliott won in 2015, he said: “This seat doesn’t belong to Bobby Sands, it belongs to the people of Fermanagh and south Tyrone.”

The seven-week election campaign was initially quite subdued, with political commentator Quintin Oliver telling The Impartial Reporter that there was a shortage of cardboard on the island of Ireland after so many recent elections and that we could expect things to hot up in the three weeks prior to June 8. 

He was correct, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone was witness to visits from Sinn Féin party president Gerry Adams cycling around Kilmacormick; its leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill and leader in the Republic of Ireland, Mary Lou McDonald. Tom Elliott was joined on the election trail by Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster –whose party had stood aside in FST – and Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister.