Mid-Ulster by-election: campaign eerily quiet as IRA murder victim's son faces alleged killer in polls

 

Most assumed it would be a by-election as bitter as any seen in Northern Ireland, not least because one candidate has been accused of involvement in the murder of the father of another.

Unionist Nigel Lutton's father, a former police reservist, was shot dead by IRA gunmen. Republican Francie Molloy was accused in parliament of helping set him up, an allegation he strongly denies.

Now they face each other in the polls. The scene seemed set for a heated fight to succeed Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as Westminster MP for Mid-Ulster.

The constituency has traditionally been so fiercely contested that voting turnout has on occasion exceeded 90 per cent.

But this time the campaign has been eerily and almost unnaturally quiet as polling day, Thursday, approaches. There has not been a single head-on confrontation, either personal or political, between the unionist and the republican.

Nigel Lutton has mentioned his father's murder, which took place when he was aged just eight, but he is not highlighting it in his campaign.

In one of his few references to the murder he confined himself to saying: “It made me want to ensure no one ever had to go through what my family went through again. I have always said that hatred can destroy a victim. I don't seek revenge.”

Francie Molloy for his part continues to deny playing any part in the incident, and has faced no serious challenges about it. “It has not been raised at all,” he told The Independent. “I have heard nothing about it, not on any doorstep.”

On a live webchat organised by a unionist paper, he pointed out, “We had one question asked and that was all, and Nigel Lutton hasn't raised it at all.”

Echoes of past republican violence are also seen in the fact that the Sinn Fein election agent is Ian Milne, who frankly acknowledges his highly active IRA past. He once featured on police posters as one of the “three most wanted” republicans.

On the surface at least there are no other obvious signs of voter interest in the issue of the Lutton killing. In the main street of Cookstown, one of Mid-Ulster's largest towns, people asked about the question looked blank, shook their heads or gave suitably wintry smiles.

Of course, in Northern Ireland a lot often goes unsaid, because many steadfastly refuse to voice opinions on such deep and difficult issues. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate who is from this part of the world, summed this up in the phrase “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

This is echoed by Eric Bullick, candidate of the moderate Alliance party, who said the Lutton killing had never been raised with him: “Certain people are happy to talk about certain issues,” he said. “Other issues that they feel strongly about, that they know might appear as sectarian attitudes, they don't even come out and tell you that. They're subtle in what they say.”

The same approach was described by local unionist councillor Trevor Wilson, who said that during canvassing the issue of the murder “hasn't come up, it really hasn't.” He added: “Nigel doesn't play on that at all, it's definitely not part of his election, though I'm sure that privately people are talking about it.”

In any case, no one believes the outcome is in doubt, for over the years Martin McGuinness has built up what a unionist campaigner conceded was “an enormous vote,” with 52 per cent of the vote in 2010. He is stepping down from Westminster to concentrate on his post as Deputy First Minister.

In the unionist camp the strategy of saying nothing, or next to nothing, has been taken to political extremes since the Lutton campaign managers have denied the media access to their candidate, who is very much a newcomer to politics.

Requests for interviews from the Belfast papers have been rejected, while he has pulled out of a local BBC programme which was to be the only debate of the contest. This has led to media descriptions of the unionist as “the Orange Pimpernel” and “the new silent man of politics.”

As a result the campaign is, in Mr Molloy's words, “very flat, no real activity in it at all” while a local moderate nationalist described it as “very, very quiet, very lacklustre, no real enthusiasm around, no real antagonism.”

The undercurrents of history still run deep in Mid-Ulster, and there are still very definitely two rival communities, but this campaign suggests that some of the ferocity has gone out of the ancient quarrel.

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