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Questions remain in safe Sinn Féin seat

(Roddy McGregor, Irish News)

Certainties are rare in politics, but in the Mid Ulster constituency the figures point towards only one result. However, Roddy McGregor finds that even here one interesting query remains unanswered.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of this year's Westminster Election in Mid Ulster is whether the returned MP will attend the opening of Northern Ireland's new policing college in two years time.

Few doubt that the new MP will also be the old MP, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, who has made the constituency his own since defeating the DUP's Willie McCrea in 1997.

With Mr McGuinness commanding more than 51% of the vote in 2001 and his party returning three of the six assembly members in 2003, it would take a truly mammoth shock for the Derryman to be unseated.

Even the former tactics of pan-unionism, which resulted in what is naturally a nationalist constituency being served by Mr McCrea, would fail to oust Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, as evidenced by Mr McCrea's decision to jump ship and stand in South Antrim for the second general election running.

Mr McCrea's son Ian will fight Mid Ulster for the DUP for the second time – although the unionist vote will be split for the first time since 1983 after the UUP decided to field assembly member Billy Armstrong.

The SDLP has changed its candidate for the third Westminster election running.

Popular assembly member Patsy McGlone has taken over from Eilis Haughey (2001) who herself took over from her father Denis (1997), a former assembly junior minister.

Mr McGlone was returned to the assembly in 2003 at the expense of Mr Haughey but has more than 17,200 votes to make up if he is to replace Mr McGuinness.

With a higher profile than Eilis Haughey and the SDLP increasing its percentage share in the assembly election, Mr McGlone will hope to increase the SDLP tally on 2001, but is unlikely to seriously challenge Mr McGuinness.

Like outgoing Foyle MP John Hume, Mr McGuinness's personal popularity is unquestionable and he is seen by many nationalists as single-handedly winning the 'rightfully' nationalist seat back from the DUP after 14 years.

Mid Ulster covers the Magherafelt and Cookstown District Council areas and the Coalisland region of Dungannon District Council – uniting bitter GAA rival counties Derry and Tyrone through the ballot box.

Other main towns include Maghera, Bellaghy, Coagh, Stewartstown, Draperstown, Pomeroy and Moneymore.

The traditionally agricultural and largely rural constituency has also suffered from the decline in the textile industry in recent years.

Other constituency issues include the retention of acute services at Magherafelt's Mid-Ulster hospital, rural housing planning, developing tourism in the Sperrins, civil service decentralisation and inward investment.

Last year Cookstown was announced as the location of the new police training college for Northern Ireland.

The contract for the facility, estimated to cost between £70–£80million, is expected to be awarded in September.

If all goes to plan the 210 acre site at Desertcreat, two miles from Cookstown, will be completed in September 2007.

If, as expected, Mr McGuinness is returned as MP, the opening could signal another landmark political development.

As Mid Ulster MP he would be certain to be invited and could well be there.

With the IRA seemingly consigned to disappear and the likelihood of multi-party talks before then, it is not beyond belief that by 2007 Sinn Féin could have endorsed policing arrangements – with Mr McGuinness among the guests at the opening of the new college.

Mid-Ulster Mail deputy editor Alan Rodgers said the election result already had "an air of almost certainty".

"There is no great excitement at this stage as most people expect Martin McGuinness to win, as shown by the fact that there is no unified unionist candidate, and those who are running haven't got the highest of profiles," he said.

"Patsy McGlone enjoyed success in the assembly election and it will be interesting to see if he can replicate or improve on that.

"There are some local issues such as by-passes for Magherafelt and Cookstown, the Area (rural housing) Plan in south Derry, and cuts in education.

"But compared to previous elections things are quiet and fairly low key so far."

Alex Scullin, chairman of the Cookstown based Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association, wants the candidates to tackle the "crisis" in farming.

"The average age of farmers now is around 60 and Mid Ulster is no different. There is no money coming in and therefore nothing to keep young people in farming," he said.

"People talk about diversification, but there is a limit to that.

"More needs to be done to tackle the British government policy on cheap food and to protect family farms.

"Livestock markets are closing all over the place.

"The problem here is that this not only hits the small farmer but has a knock-on on the likes of small shops, machinery firms and even concrete plants. Something has to be done," he added.

April 22, 2005

This article appeared first in the April 21, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News