LOCAL voters will be spoiled for choice come May 5th, with this Assembly election boasting the largest field of candidates ever in Fermanagh South Tyrone (FST).
Nominations for all constituencies closed last week, with a total of 16 candidates putting in their papers for what has the potential to be one of the most interesting elections in FST for many years.
There are plenty of familiar faces on the ballot this year, and plenty of new names too, with the candidates coming from right across the political spectrum.
With Sinn Féin putting forward three, and the DUP and UUP nominating two each, the packed field also features SDLP, Alliance, Aontú, TUV, Green Party, Cross Community Labour Alternative, People Before Profit and Independent candidates.
There are five seats up for grabs in FST, which is famous for always throwing up some of the most closely fought battles of any constituency. Once again this year several closely run contests are expected.
One of the more interesting battles will certainly be among unionist votes, with the fallout of former First Minister Arlene Foster’s dramatic resignation last year – and the tensions that resulted in the DUP as a result – yet to be tested at the local polls.
Cllr Deborah Erskine, who was co-opted onto Arlene Foster’s seat in the Assembly after the former First Minister resigned, will be hoping to capitalise on her friend and mentor’s local popularity. As will her running mate Paul Bell, who had dramatically quit the party over Mrs Foster’s treatment but has since rejoined.
No doubt both the UUP, who are running two candidates for the first time since 2016, and the TUV’s Alex Elliott will be hoping to capitalise on any dissatisfaction that may remain among local DUP voters.
Indeed, the fact the UUP has decided to run both sitting MLA Rosemary Barton and former MP and party leader Tom Elliott this time around is a possible indication it is confident the party can pick up more votes.
On the nationalist side of the house, the big battle will once again be for the ‘third’ seat, which Sinn Fein narrowly recaptured from the SDLP in 2017. During that election, the SDLP’s Richie McPhillips narrowly missed out on the seat he had won at the expense of Sinn Féin’s John Feely the previous year.
With just 62 votes in it last time, local St Kevin’s teacher Cllr Adam Gannon will be hoping to see a swing back in the SDLP’s direction this time around.
If Cllr Gannon was successful in regaining the seat, it is unclear at whose expense it may be at, with Sinn Féin running three candidates who are all sitting MLAs – Jemma Dolan, Áine Murphy, and Colm Gildernew.
Elsewhere, it could be said this year’s FST ballot is the most ‘progressive’ ever seen, with more independent and smaller party candidates than in any previous year, including Alliance’s Matthew Beaumont, to Labour Alternative’s Cllr Donal O’Cofaigh, to the Green Party’s Kellie Turtle, to Independent Emma DeSouza.
Another new face on the ballot will be Aontú’s Cllr Denise Mullen, who resigned from the SDLP in 2019.
There were also two late comers to the ballot this year, People Before Profit’s Emmett Kilpatrick, and independent Derek Blackhouse, both of whom are from Tyrone.
To read more.. Subscribe to current edition