County Constituency, House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness as part of the party's commitment to end the so-called "double jobbing" of its elected members. McGuinness is continuing to serve as an MLA for Mid Ulster and as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
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The constituency is notable for having a relatively even mix of its population coming from Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic communities - a demographic that has resulted in it changing hands between a number of different nationalist and unionist parties over time, although McGuinness had safely held the seat since gaining it from the Democratic Unionists in 1997.
The constituency has an interesting history in by-elections as well. In 1955, Sinn Féin's Tom Mitchell won the seat while serving a prison sentence for taking part in a raid on Omagh barracks. He was subsequently disqualified and the seat vacated, but he won again in the ensuing by-election. His sole opponent in the 1955 by-election, the Ulster Unionist Charles Beattie, argued that as voters had already been aware that Mitchell was an ineligible candidate they had effectively spoiled their ballot papers and thus the seat should be awarded to him instead.
A special electoral court agreed with his case and he became the new MP, but only a matter of weeks later it came to light that his membership of a Northern Irish appeals tribunal constituted an "office of profit under the Crown", which made him ineligible to become an MP as well. Beattie was disqualified before he even got to make his maiden speech in parliament, and another by-election was subsquently held in 1956 which was won by Independent Unionist George Forrest (who joined the UUP immediately after being elected), who would go on to hold the seat until his death in 1969, precipitating another by-election.
The 1969 by-election was unusual for its time in that the two candidates contesting it were both women. Bernadette Devlin gained the seat from the Ulster Unionist Party's Anna Forrest (George Forrest's widow), standing for 'Unity' - an electoral pact of various nationalist parties and groups. Unity would go on to hold Mid Ulster and gain one other seat in the 1970 General Election, before disappearing.
After Devlin lost the seat in the February 1974 General Election, Mid Ulster was held by a series of different unionist parties. John Dunlop won the seat in both 1974 elections as the "Vanguard" candidate, then held it again in 1979 standing for the United Ulster Unionist Party. He retired in 1983, and the seat passed to the Democratic Unionist Party's William McCrea, who won with only a tiny 78 vote majority over Sinn Féin.
McCrea, along with 14 other Unionist MPs in Northern Ireland, resigned to force by-elections in 1986 to protest the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. These by-elections are notable for a number of records including the most by-elections held in one day, as well as the largest share of the vote won by a candidate since the Second World War - the DUP's Ian Paisley winning 97.4% of the vote in North Antrim against a "For the Anglo-Irish Agreement" candidate, who was in fact put up by the unionists to ensure that the seat would be contested. McCrea held the Mid Ulster seat in his own by-election with a greatly increased majority, with the nationalist vote almost equally split between Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
William McCrea held the Mid Ulster seat until 1997, since when the seat has been safely Sinn Féin - re-electing Martin McGuinness with progressively larger majorities in every election. William McCrea went on to become an MLA for Mid Ulster from 1998 until 2007, and then an MLA for South Antrim from 2007 until 2010. He also served as MP for South Antrim briefly from a 2000 by-election until 2001, and again since 2005. Meanwhile, his son Ian McCrea continued to contest Mid Ulster at Westminster level in every election, always coming second to McGuinness.
Which brings us neatly up to the present contest. On paper, the seat should be safely Sinn Féin. However, their dominance is being challenged by the appearance of a unity unionist candidate, who will be aiming to slip past the split nationalist vote, much as in the 1986 by-election here.
The Sinn Féin candidate is Francie Molloy - an MLA for Mid Ulster since 1998 (given the party's opposition to double jobbing, it is assumed that he would resign from Stormont if he won the election). Aside from his long service in Stormont, he is perhaps best known as being the focus of a speech in Westminster in 2007 when DUP MP David Simpson used parliamentary privilege to accuse Molloy of being a former IRA activist, and having been involved in the shooting of Eric Lutton. The full details of these allegations can be found in this Belfast Telegraph article from the time.
The unity unionist candidate is Nigel Lutton, son of the aforementioned Eric Lutton. He is standing as an independent candidate, though he has the implicit backing of the Democratic Unionists, the Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice. While some unionists support this greater degree of integration, it has caused some consternation in the ranks of the more moderate UUP - with two MLAs (John McCallister and Basil McCrea) resigning from the party as a result of the co-operation, and now apparently planning to launch their own new moderate pro-union party. He also gained the support of Willie Frazer, a loyalist campaigner with links to the Ulster People's Forum set up in the wake of the recent flag protests in Belfast, who had originally planned to stand as an independent himself.
The other two candidates are Patsy McGlone for the SDLP - another MLA for the Mid Ulster constituency - and Eric Bullick for the Alliance Party. The SDLP came a very close third behind the DUP here in 2010, although their vote will likely be under extreme pressure to move to Sinn Féin given the presence of the unity unionist candidate. The Alliance meanwhile have a negligible presence in this constituency, polling just 1% of the vote in 2010.
Overall, this contest should prove to be relatively competitive, and has the potential to change the political makeup of Westminster, not only if the unionist manages to take the seat from the abstentionist Sinn Féin, but also in laying the foundations for a unity unionist movement (and, ironically, the new split in the UUP which that movement seems to be causing). It certainly deserves better than the total media blackout it seems to be receiving, which comes in stark contrast to the whirlwind of coverage around the Eastleigh by-election last week.
Eric Bullick (Alliance)
Nigel Lutton (Independent)
Patsy McGlone (SDLP)
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
2010 result SF 21239 DUP 5876 SDLP 5826 UCUNF 4509 TUV 2995 Alliance 397
2005 result SF 21641 DUP 10665 SDLP 7922 UUP 4853 Workers' 345
2001 result SF 25502 DUP 15549 SDLP 8376 Workers' 509
1997 result SF 20294 DUP 18411 SDLP 11205 Alliance 460 Workers' 238 Natural Law 61
1992 result DUP 23181 SDLP 16994 SF 10248 Alliance 1506 Labour and Trade Union 389 Workers' 285 Natural Law 164
1987 result DUP 23004 SDLP 13644 SF 12449 Alliance 1846 Workers' 1133
1986 by-election DUP 23695 SF 13998 SDLP 13021 Workers' 691
1983 result DUP 16174 SF 16096 SDLP 12044 UUP 7066 Alliance 1735 Workers' 766
1979 result UUUP 29249 SDLP 19266 IIP 12055 Alliance 3481 Republican Clubs 1414
Oct 1974 result Vanguard 30552 SDLP 25885 Republican Clubs 8091
Feb 1974 result Vanguard 26004 SDLP 19372 Ind. Socialist 16672 Pro-Assembly Unionist 4633
1970 result Unity 37739 UUP 31810 Ind 771 National Socialist 198
1969 by-election Unity 33648 UUP 29437
1966 result UUP 29728 Ind. Republican 27168
1964 result UUP 29715 Ind. Republican 22810 Labour 5053
1959 result UUP 33093 SF 14170
1956 by-election Ind. Unionist 28605 SF 24124 Anti-Partition 6421
1955 by-election SF 30392 UUP 29586
1955 result SF 29737 UUP 29477
1951 result Ind. Republican 33097 UUP 29701
1950 result Ind. Republican 33023 UUP 29721