Tom Elliott and the battle for Fermanagh and South Tyrone…

Tom Elliot is very much the reluctant candidate in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster contest. I wanted to focus on this election battle and give outsiders a little context on the contest from a Unionist perspective.

Within FST, Unionists are the minority community. If you ask any Unionist within the constituency what they expect from the election, the answer is a Sinn Fein victory. Having said that, there is a strong desire for representation at Westminster, a strong desire for an agreed candidate and huge demand for putting on a strong performance.

It may sound odd to outsiders, but most Unionists within FST are content with “losing well”. Unionists realise they are the minority and by giving Sinn Fein a close run it illustrates strongly that there is discontent with how Sinn Fein have been representing the constituency.

The DUP pulling out of FST presented a headache for the UUP as they don’t have the financial, or human resources to run a large-scale constituency campaign against the might of Sinn Fein. The first problem was finding a candidate.

There are no natural contenders within their elected team and the wider party is bereft of a notable contender. This has resulted in them coaxing Tom out of political retirement. Tom was extremely reluctant to come back and there are a number of reasons for this:

  1. He has been away from frontline politics for two years and is now rusty.
  2. He has a new life. He is an MLA’s assistant, chairman of his football club and County Grandmaster of the Royal Black as well as being more active on his farm.
  3. He took a lot of abuse and personal attacks whilst in frontline politics. Returning to this type of political cauldron was not exactly enticing.

At this stage of the election campaign, Tom’s reluctance and lack of motivation is all too apparent. Whilst the Sinn Fein campaign is well under way, Tom’s presence is almost invisible. The UUP movement needs to gather energy, momentum and present a consistent and appealing message.

Some of the challenges Tom has are as follows:

Steve Aiken – His declaration the UUP would not be entering into pacts it went down like a lead balloon in FST. When he reversed this decision, some though the UUP were the wrong party to spearhead the campaign. However, within FST the DUP has a relatively small membership and they lack the resources to drive this election campaign. Some are unhappy with their party standing a paper candidate in South Belfast. Tom must demonstrate that FST is separate to Belfast and set aside the bad blood between the DUP and UUP.

Ulster Unionist Party – This should be Tom’s bedrock, but the UUP is a haphazard operation. In 2015 Tom Elliott won the Westminster seat to everyone’s surprise, not least his own party. This resulted in Tom’s MLA position becoming available and three candidates from within the UUP had put their names forward for the role (Kenny Donaldson, who worked with a victim’s organisation; Rosemary Barton, who was an elected councillor; and the relatively unknown Neil Sommerville). An internal party ballot resulted in Kenny Donaldson comfortably topping the poll with Rosemary Barton finishing runner up, Neil Sommerville was eliminated. The next stage was for both candidates to be presented to Mike Nesbitt where a successor to Tom would be chosen. However, after the ballot it was claimed that some missing votes were found which should have gone to Neil Sommerville and at this point, the party officers decided to allow Sommerville through to the final stage where he was subsequently chosen by Nesbitt. The entire debacle caused some unintended consequences:

  • Neil Sommerville fairly quickly resigned citing stress as the primary reason.
  • Kenny Donaldson, who is well respected across Fermanagh, left the party and with this departure, one of the UUP’s best assets disappeared.
  • Sommerville’s replacement, Alastair Patterson, a relatively unknown, only had a short time to perform as MLA before the next election. When the Assembly elections came, the UUP fielded two candidates in FST, Barton and Patterson who both performed poorly with the former scraping home. A spat seemed to have developed between the two candidates which resulted in Patterson defecting to the DUP.

The above catastrophe is endemic within the UUP, and has resulted in the party membership being relatively elderly and continually shrinking. Tom has very little in the way of resources to use, particularly in terms of activists to knock on doors.

Democratic Unionist Party –Just because the DUP are standing aside it does not mean their votes are guaranteed to go to Tom and this is a significant problem. Tom must reach out to the DUP and get them involved in his canvassing teams just as he did in 2015. There is bad blood between the two parties, however. Most DUP supporters are motivated to back Tom but these votes cannot be taken for granted. Arlene Foster has been keen to give high-level support to Tom by accompanying him when he submitted his nomination papers. However, Tom will want to ensure that Arlene does not get too involved as her toxicity amongst Nationalists could help galvanise the Sinn Fein vote.

TUV/UKIP and Others – In 2010, Rodney Connor, standing as an Independent Unionist, lost the election by four votes. It was subsequently discovered that a number of ballot papers were spoilt within the constituency with the letters “TUV” scrawled onto many of them. These spoilt ballots would have seen Connor home and dry. This event sparked fury amongst Unionists within FST and resulted in the TUV never attaining a foothold within the constituency. The UKIP vote is only a few hundred and dwindling but in such marginal constituency, Tom will need to keep all factions onside. In 2015 Jim Allister campaigned alongside Tom and Frederick Parkinson accompanied them to represent UKIP. Again these stakeholders will need to be fully on board if Tom is to gain any momentum.

Tom’s Election Team – This is proving a huge problem at the moment. Tom seems to be going on a solo run and in doing so he is facing near certain defeat. Tom is not a  frequent social media user although he does have a Twitter and Facebook profile. Therefore it is essential that someone is brought in who can run this side of the campaign, a person who can engage with the public, update the platforms regularly and someone who won’t fall out with potential voters.  Michelle Gildernew’s online profiles suggests she’s streets ahead in this regard.

Tom actually did pull a clever manoeuvre by declaring that he would not be putting up posters, citing business opposition over the Christmas period. This is certainly a sensible approach; however, the reality is likely to have more to do with financial constraints and lack of volunteers to display them.

In addition to an online presence, Tom needs to organise teams to canvass areas. This is something his campaign Manager should be working on. Many Unionists complain that in FST few canvassers are ever seen from the Unionist parties and this is something that must change.  Sinn Fein has huge teams out covering the constituency. I have suggested that he needs to put out an appeal for canvassers to cover the constituency but it has been partially knocked back as it “looks a bit desperate”. This really is self-defeating.

Central Message(s) – Tom is having huge problems with his central message and this is being exploited by all of his opponents and with some justification. During the successful 2015 campaign, Tom stuck rigidly to the central plank of “representation at Westminster” and it worked. He is pushing this again but only half-heartedly; he also has a confusing message on Brexit and no other polices at present. My suggestion would be as follows:

  • Stick to the main message of representation at Westminster for all of FST
  • Tackle the Brexit issue with a clear policy that protects FST from any negative impact that Brexit might have. Tom can really draw on his farming background here to develop a policy that chimes with the farming community.
  • Make health a central part of the campaign and address the issue of finding doctors and nurses who want to work in Fermanagh.

The Loyal Order Family – Tom needs to get them onside. From the outset that should be easy as Tom is such a prominent member of the Loyal Orders, however, too many within this section are not motivated to vote. After the 2017 failed campaign I spoke to scores of Orangemen and band members who didn’t vote as they felt political Unionism was not delivering for them. There is a certain truth in this and it will be difficult to address these issues fully via a Westminster campaign. However, a public question and answer session that was organised by the Orange in 2015 actually proved quite successful. I remember attending this and the questioning that Tom and indeed Arlene received was quite astute and revealing and really showed that the Orange family is interested in much more than flags and parades. There was however, the unfortunate gaffe by a prominent Orange minister at an Orange breakfast in support of Tom during the 2017 campaign. Canon Watson stated he was “glad hydrogen peroxide is dyeing hair blonde and not going into creamery cans to make explosives” in a jibe against Michelle O’Neill that Sinn Fein latched onto. The remark cost the Canon his parish from which he was moved on. The Loyal Orders need to ensure this nonsense does not happen again.

Some of the local bands in 2015 also did leaflet drops for Tom which proved very useful and the UUP team might feel this is worth looking into again, especially with the current canvassing team so shorthanded. I am obviously cautious of this grouping, of which I am a member, however, in reality, it should be about ensuring this part of the community feels enfranchised.

Unicorn Voters – Previously I have dismissed the idea Nationalists might vote for a Unionist, however, I know a few who do vote for Tom as he is seen as an honest broker. We must remember too that in FST, there are a minority of Nationalists who want their voices heard in Westminster. Tom needs to ensure that he is conscious of this section and creating a campaign that appeals to them as much as it does to mainstream Unionism.

Don’t forget South Tyrone – With Fermanagh making up the bulk of the constituency it can sometimes result in South Tyrone being forgotten about. In recent times MLA Barton has addressed this better and the UUP will need to ensure voters here are as motivated to get out and support Tom as they are in Fermanagh.

Liberals and Others – One reason for Rodney Connor’s failed 2010 campaign, which culminated in the Unionist vote dropping, was that some of the electorate deemed him too liberal. Tom has the opposite problem in that some will deem him too conservative. Tom will need to wind down his usual rhetoric. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be his authentic self because his authentic self is his greatest asset. However, harking back to the IRA by default or being fixated on same-sex marriage will put many off. If liberal Unionists are put off by Tom, they will vote Alliance or stay at home. An interesting debate broke out via Tom’s election page on social media when a poster queried what Tom’s policies were? The administrator of the page under the name of “Tom Elliott for FST”, thought it was a good idea to question the individual’s credentials by highlighting that they signed the Alliance party candidate’s election papers.  The individual conceded that this was true, but pointed out that he was a Unionist and was open to voting for Tom if there was a solid platform of policies. Needless to say, the administrator didn’t respond. This is textbook arrogance from the UUP, assuming all Unionists must vote for their candidate regardless of their policies. It is also a particularly horrendous way to manage an election page that is supposed to be promoting Tom. A unity candidate has the responsibility of encompassing the broader section of the constituency. It is a zero-sum game to present Tom to the electorate as the lesser of two evils.

Awkward Unionists – We Unionists are a difficult group and there are none more difficult and stubborn than those from Fermanagh. There is nothing Tom can really do to completely influence this grouping but a clear concise message will always help. Below are some of the reasons this group have given for not voting for Tom: “Tom walked past me and never said hello”; “I don’t like the Orange and Tom’s an Orangeman”; “Not a fan of the UUP”; “Couldn’t get any time off work”; “I don’t like Tom’s voice”; “Tom’s gone soft”; “Tom’s too hardline”; “Tom didn’t go to Portora”; “Tom never did anything for me”.

Answers on a postcard if you have any suggestions for resolving the above?

Michelle Gildernew – As much as it pains me to say, she is a formidable opponent. I applaud the fact that she is articulate, runs a good election campaign and regarded as personable.  However, many Unionists find her invisible from one election campaign to the next, declaring the FST seat as Bobby Sands won few friends amongst Unionists and the lack of Westminster representation is the big issue.

Tom Elliott – Tom is a decent man but he has been known to make quite a few gaffs in his time. He was once doing an interview from a count centre with Noel Thompson in the BBC studio, and Noel asked, “How do you think you’re faring Mr. Elliott, where are you at the moment in the process?” To which Tom replied, “I’m just standing outside the count centre”. Now that’s a forgivable mistake, but with the following and others he certainly used very poor judgement:

  • -The “Scum of Sinn Fein” comment at the count centre. He’ll be well known for this and it was out of character for Tom. I do take the point that he was being heavily provoked at the time, but his reaction won him few friends – with the exception of Jim Allister.
  • -Ill-advised references – whilst Tom denied giving a reference for a benefit fraudster, he was implicated in it by giving a statement to a judge on behalf of the fraudster and then refused to release the statement. There were reports of other low-level references given by Tom that were considered “ill-judged”. A UUP insider said that “Tom can be helpful to a fault”. This however, represents very bad judgement and something Tom will need to be more cautious of.
  • -Ill-advised statements against the Attorney General John Larkin, questioning his impartiality. Tom later released a statement apologising and paid an undisclosed sum of money to charity.

In addition to being gaff prone, Tom is not always comfortable in crowds or mixing with people and in many ways is the opposite of Michelle Gildernew. In front of the camera, he is certainly a weaker performer than others with the same experience and a recent video he made for his election campaign was truly shocking. The message was weak and incoherent with Tom stumbling through it. This is perfectly understandable for a candidate who has been away from the frontline for over two years, but it would have made more sense to reshoot it rather than putting it up as a promotional video on his social media platform.

Despite this, I do respect Tom enormously. I am saddened that he gets so much unjustified bile thrown at him simply for being less polished than some of the more career orientated politicians of the modern era. At his core, he is a family man who plays a positive role within the local community. One of the best compliments I ever heard about Tom was from a businessman who knew him through football in their school days. “Tom was this big quiet centre half who went to the Duke of Westminster and left with a modest education. I went to Portora and did relatively well. However, whenever I turn on my TV and see Tom giving a speech in Stormont, Westminster or just in front of the cameras, I am in absolute awe”. Tom certainly isn’t from “big house Unionism” and maybe his style of candidature now looks dated and old but it’s refreshing to watch someone do well who came from a much humbler beginning.

Overall, Unionists in FST are moving on from pacts and are demanding their representatives present clear and mature policies with genuine vision. Tom looks out of sync in some regards and is almost a throwback to a different era and Unionism in general in this part of the world is struggling to gain traction. In 2017 Tom increased his vote to 24,355 which was the highest attained by a Unionist candidate in FST since 1997; however, he still fell short by 875 votes.

Tom will struggle to match this vote again and may need to exceed it in order to claim the seat. I am not sensing an upset in FST this time around, I’m not even sure that it will be a very close race. Tom is really up against the well-oiled election machine of Sinn Fein. Having spoken to a number of Sinn Fein supporters they seem very relaxed about FST with their focus being on North Belfast and Foyle.

Unionism is typically disjointed, disorganised and lacking any vision in FST and will need to self-evaluate after the election. Tom has been coerced into standing and is very much the reluctant candidate and I cannot help but sense that he’s looking forward to December 13th and returning to the good life on his farm.

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