Foyle is set to be the ‘constituency of death’ for nationalists in the 2016 Six-County Assembly election after Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness announced he would run in the Foyle constituency, taking on the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and a prominent independent candidate, Dr Anne McCloskey.
The SDLP has said the people of Derry would welcome the chance to deliver their verdict on McGuinness’s record at Stormont Assembly in the May election.
Mr McGuinness has been an Assembly member for Mid Ulster since 1998 and was previously MP there before resigning his Westminster seat three years ago. His decision to run in Foyle, where Sinn Fein has two assembly seats to the SDLP’s three, is being described by the party as a return to “where Martin’s heart is”.
But there are undoubtedly major tactical considerations: apart from concern over a new SDLP dynasty emerging under Eastwood, there has been a wave of support for local GP Anne McCloskey, whose anti-establishment candidacy has been supported by every independent councillor in Derry and Strabane.
But Sinn Fein are optimistic that they could take a seat third seat in Foyle, after the party’s overall share of the vote at the 2011 Stormont poll was just over one per cent behind the SDLP.
SDLP Foyle MLA Gerard Diver said the May election would be a “referendum on the record of Stormont’s current leadership”, accusing Sinn Fein of failing to deliver on promises for the local Magee University and the city’s roads infrastructure.
“Derry people understand that the city has suffered under the government of Sinn Fein. They are a party of broken promises,” he said.
One Sinn Fein official admitted McGuinness’s move to Foyle was part of Sinn Fein’s campaign to win three seats in Derry.
“Martin McGuinness’ positive leadership would be a real boost to the people of the Derry and will help build on the great work already carried out by Maeve McLaughlin and Raymond McCartney,” he said.
“Martin has been the driving force behind the progress that has been made and three Sinn Fein seats in Foyle is the best way to ensure that delivery continues,” the source added.
The party will also have an eye on the Westminster seat currently held by former SDLP leader Mark Durkan.
Colum Eastwood said: “I take it as a compliment Martin is standing in Foyle. Derry is the heartland of John Hume and the SDLP and has had very strong representatives there for a very long time.”
Mr McGuinness unsuccessfully contested the constituency in 1983, 1987 and 1992, losing to the former SDLP leader John Hume on each occasion, before finally switching to Mid-Ulster in 1997.
At last night’s launch of Sinn Fein’s election candidate for Sligo-Leitrim, Mr McGuinness was quoted as saying: “For the last 19 years, I have been very proud to represent Mid-Ulster. I am now going back to my home city of Derry. Martin Kenny will be a TD for this constituency. I hope to be a TD for Foyle very soon too.”
Anne McCloskey did not comment on the development. Her own candidacy has been supported by republican Gary Donnelly, who topped the poll in the city’s local elections in 2014. The Shantallow-based family doctor said her decision to stand had been encouraged by the growth in independent representatives north and south of the border. She describes herself as left-wing but pro-life, with a republicanism based on analysis, not dogma.
“None of the labels fit with me, I do not tick any of the boxes. But, I do care passionately about people and I don’t think you can live in this town and not be affected by the political impotency facing people. Half this community are taking anti-depressant medication and they have a lack of self-esteem and a lack of hope.
“If we have an idea that we need to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’ then that is what it should actually mean. I am standing really in order to give a voice to people.”