Voters prepare to go to the polls

Thursday, 2 March 2017

IT'S the snap election few could have predicted 10 months ago but tomorrow (Thursday) voters across West Tyrone will go to the polls again to elect in a new Northern Ireland Assembly in what could become one of the most defining elections in the history of devolution here.

A total of 15 candidates are going in search of one of the five seats up for grabs in the West Tyrone constituency which covers Omagh and Strabane.

Polling stations open at 7am and will remain so until 10pm. Some 64,258 people are entitled to vote in West Tyrone. A new round of registrations has seen 2,227 voters added to the electorate while postal votes are up to 1,819 and proxy votes 982.

 Throughout the campaign candidates have been pounding the pavements in an effort to deal with the mixture of local demands and national scandals. Topics like the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme, Red Sky, NAMA and an Irish Language Act have all been hot topics.

 Local issues such as broadband, health, education, infrastructure, local jobs and investment have been in the air too but perhaps a little overshadowed as the fallout between the major parties seemed to be taking centre stage.

West Tyrone is a constituency of fine-margins and with the reduction in the number of seats from six to five and a higher quota the count is expected to run into Saturday. And, considering there is set to be at least one major political casualty here after the vote, this contest will be about numbers, transfers and of course, turnout.

 For successive elections three Sinn Féin candidates have been returned, with the remainder split between the DUP, UUP and SDLP. Six does not go into five though and it is just a question of who loses out.

The addition of the TUV into the fray will certainly make it more interesting but in general there appears to be a unwritten rule between all pro-union parties to transfer to one another.

 The major name missing from the ballot is UUP stalwart Ross Hussey. The veteran Omagh MLA retired last month on medical grounds and his replacement, 24 year-old Alicia Clarke faces the challenging task of retaining his seat at her first time of asking.

In recognition of the change in electoral make-up both Sinn Féin and the DUP are standing only their outgoing MLAs, with all previously successful candidates bar Hussey hoping for a swift re-election.

The DUP's Thomas Buchanan looks the safest unionist bet to retain his seat defending a surplus quota, even in the face of an expected RHI backlash and he should be joined by at least two Sinn Féin candidates, Barry McElduff and Michaela Boyle polling strongest last time out.

In the narrowest finish of the 2016 election, Sinn Féin's Declan McAleer scraped past running-mate Grace McDermott from Castlderg by 10 votes after the eleventh count and he could again face a nail-biting battle with the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan and Alicia Clarke for the final two seats.

Of the remainder to throw their hats into the ring former Sinn Féin councillor, now independent, Sorcha McAnespie could present the greatest challenge to the established order, while the TUV will bank upon the experience of former DUP councillor, Charlie Chittick, to poll strongly in the party's first appearance in the constituency.

For the rest, who include a mixture of independents, Alliance, Greens, Conservative Party and pro-cannabis Citizens Independent Social Thought Alliance (CISTA) candidates their transfers could prove decisive.


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