A television debate planned as the climax of the Mid-Ulster by-election campaign went awry this week with only two of the four candidates attending.
Nigel Lutton, the Ulster Unity candidate, stunned observers by withdrawing from the debate at the last minute. It was seen as one of his few chances to pull off an upset.
He claimed that with only a few days left until polling, he needed to concentrate his efforts on canvassing. Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy, who had insisted that all four candidates take part, then also pulled out of the debate, leaving only the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone and Alliance’s Eric Bullick to take part.
Thursday’s by-election was triggered in December by the resignation of the sitting MP, Martin McGuinness. While Sinn Féin are strongly favoured to retain the seat, the performance of the three other parties will be closely watched for any changes since the last Westminster poll in 2010.
Patsy McGlone of the nationalist SDLP described the collapse of the debate as “truly bizarre”, while Eric Bullick of the moderate unionist Alliance Party said the public had not been given the chance to compare the views of their candidates.
In the last general election in 2010, Martin McGuinness was returned as Mid-Ulster MP with a clear margin at 52 per cent of the vote. The combined share of the DUP, UUP and Traditional Unionist Voice was just over 32 per cent.
In 1997, DUP hardliner Willie McCrea lost the seat to Sinn Féin following boundary changes, and it has remained under SF control ever since.
On the campaign trail, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has sought to justify his decision to back a joint by-election candidate with the DUP. The former news anchorman said the decision allowed an outside chance of a unionist taking the seat back from Sinn Féin.
But the decision to back Nigel Lutton as a joint ‘Ulster Unity’ candidate with the DUP provoked Nesbitt’s former deputy leader, John McCallister, to quit the party. He described the decision as the fulfillment of his prediction last autumn that the UUP was “sleep walking” into a merger with their unionist rivals.
In an interview this week, Nesbitt denied the UUP was doing so. The options, he said, were to give Sinn Féin a “walk in the park”. But he accepted the prospect of a unionist victory remained “very, very slim”.
Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy is a veteran republican who has been a party member of the Assembly for Mid-Ulster since 1998. He first stood for the party in 1982, a year after being director of elections for IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. He was first elected to Dungannon District Council in 1985.
In 2005, he was suspended from Sinn Féin after publicly disagreeing with party policy over how many local councils there should be, before being readmitted.
Speaking at the launch of his manifesto in Belfast on Tuesday, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams described Mr Molloy as “a life-long Republican whose involvement in politics stems from the Civil Rights Movement, through the worst of the conflict, as a leader in the peace process and the political institutions, and now into the process of reconciliation and uniting Ireland.
“Francie was one of those who participated in the Caledon squat in 1967 - our Rosa Parks moment - which helped inject significant momentum into the civil rights campaign.
“As a Councillor and MLA Francie has worked hard for the people of Mid Ulster; to create employment, oppose austerity and defend the rights of citizens.
“In almost 45 years of political activism Francie Molloy has been a community and political leader. He has taken significant personal and political risks and is wholly committed to the ensuring a better future for the people of Mid Ulster.”