Cross-Community Labour Campaign Ends on a High in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Ciaran Mulholland

Regional Secretary and Director of Elections Cross-Community Labour Alternative

July 2nd 2024

Gerry Cullen’s election campaign in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST) constituency drew to a close on Monday evening, July 1st. Like almost everyone else, Cross-Community Labour Alternative (CCLA) were taken by surprise by the snap election. Nevertheless, we were able to mount an effective campaign during which we have knocked on 5000 doors and we have erected posters the length and breadth of the largest constituency. Over 67,000 election manifestos have gone through the doors of every home in the area.

A Positive Reception

The reception we have received on the doorsteps has been very positive. It is widely recognised that we are the only party that canvassed both Catholic and Protestant housing estates. Gerry is very well known amongst workers in the Dungannon area because of his decades of exemplary work on their behalf. He was elected to Dungannon Council on three separate occasions and only lost his seat at his fourth outing by a narrow margin despite winning his highest ever vote.

Gerry is not only held in high regard amongst Catholic and Protestant working class people, but also amongst migrant workers who have settled in the Dungannon area, especially those from East Timor. In more recent years, he has made a strong stand for the rights of the residents of local care homes and of the staff who care for them.

During the election campaign Gerry met with the campaign group working to protect the South West Acute Hospital-Save Our Acute Services (SOAS)-and promised not just verbal support but action. He is already following through on his promises.

The Battle between Unionism and Nationalism

We will not know the outcome of the result until the early hours of July 5th. We do know that the battle for the seat comes down to a straight fight between Pat Cullen of Sinn Fein and Dianne Armstrong of the Ulster Unionist Party. Armstong is the only Unionist in the field and is the daughter of Harry West who was the leader of Ulster unionism in the 1970s. She will be hoping to attract voters who normally support the Democratic Unionist Party or Traditional Unionist Voice.

The Sinn Fein candidate is Pat Cullen who has no apparent background in nationalist politics. Her candidacy was declared suddenly and appeared to take local Sinn Fein members by surprise. She was previously General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing and had a high profile during the recent health workers disputes.

Sinn Fein have a contest for the nationalist vote with the SDLP and Aontu. Pat Cullen does not come from the area and is not well known among nationalist voters, but this will cost her few votes. The strength of an individual candidates is much less important than the ability of nationalism and unionism to mobilise to “keep the other side out”, and both the SDLP vote and Aoutu will be squeezed. It is most likely that Sinn Fein will win the seat as there is a small Catholic majority in the constituency. Fermanagh and South Tyrone traditionally sees the highest turnout in elections in the North and is likely that this will be replicated on this occasion.

The Alliance Vote

The Alliance Party previously had little support in the constituency but now has a councillor in Enniskillen, Eddie Roofe, and he is the candidate in the general election. The Alliance Party vote has grown across Northern Ireland in the last decade from a core of between 7% and 10% historically. Now it scores about 15-17% in each election.

There is no doubt that most of its voters are repelled by sectarian politics and who want to ensure that their voice is heard. In some constituencies its growth has been bolstered by its ability to win over previous Green Party voters and some of the softer supporters of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. It also paradoxically attracts votes on the basis of sectarian division. In areas where Catholics are in the minority and cannot expect to elect a nationalist, some will vote for the Alliance Party in opposition to the Unionist parties. Similarly, in areas where Protestants are in a minority, some will vote for the Alliance Party to keep nationalists out.

The Alliance Party is right wing on the key economic issues. It offers no way forward for workers or young people searching for a real alternative, but until the broad workers movement steps forward and offers a real alternative, they will win votes that ought to belong to cross-community left candidates.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone Has Begun

Cross-Community Labour won 602 votes in the 2022 Assembly election and 750 votes in the last general election when we were involved in the campaign of independent Caroline Wheeler, who was also backed by the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. The CCLA vote will be under severe pressure in this election, given the high-profile nature of the unionist-nationalist battle.

Cross-Community Labour is proud of our election campaign, and we see it as a further step in our efforts to build a credible class-based opposition, not just in FST but across Northern Ireland. There is no reason why a similar campaigning approach could not be adopted in all constituencies to ensure that there is a real alternative everywhere at the next Assembly elections and local elections in May 2027.

Whatever the vote on July 4th Cross-Community Labour will continue its wider discussions with others in order to build for the next elections. Cross-Community Labour is a genuine umbrella group involving left, community, environmental and trade union activists. The campaign involves individuals who previously held prominent positions in the Labour Party, for example, former Regional Chair Padraig Murphy. Gerry has also had the backing of prominent trade unionists including Tanya Killen the President of NIPSA, and Carmel Gates General Secretary of NIPSA. Militant Left have been central to the campaign. The Workers Party Constituency Council in FST have called on their members and supporters to vote for CCLA. The Socialist Party have also called for a vote for Gerry Cullen.

This is the music of the future. We can and must build together. Whatever the vote on Thursday one third of the population will not turn out and some of those who do will vote for the Alliance Party when their preference would be for a vote for a credible left alternative.

Others will vote for a nationalist or unionist candidate because they do not see any alternative at this time to ensuring that the best representative of “their community” goes forward. A united campaigning approach across the next three years, drawing on support of trade union activists, and with agreed candidates in each constituency, would ensure there is a real alternative on offer. Gerry Cullen’s campaign is an important step in this process.

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