Irish Republican News · June 3, 2017
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
IRISH REPUBLICAN NEWS: Westminster election - constituency profiles
Westminster election - constituency profiles

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A quick look at each of the 18 Westminster constituencies in the North of Ireland, and what to expect when the election results come rolling in next week.

 

Upper Bann

Only a major and concerted voter migration from the SDLP to Sinn Fein will see the seat in Upper Bann fall into nationalist hands.

Former education minister John O’Dowd stepped aside at the last general election for the up-and-coming Catherine Seeley in an area which has seen the party show consistent growth.

She has since decided to return to teaching career, but retained the party’s 25 per cent vote share in 2015, which Mr O’Dowd is expected to further increase on June 8.

Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie has a prominent public profile and has won increased unionist support on the back of his British military background. However, DUP MP David Simpson is likely to retain the support of enough unionist hardliners to retain his seat.

West Tyrone

One of Sinn Fein’s most secure seats for the past 16 years, its support in the rural constituency has shown no sign of weakening.

The one difference this year is that outgoing MP Pat Doherty is not standing for re-election, bowing out of public life at the age of 71.

The Glasgow-born politician, who served as Sinn Fein vice-president for more than 20 years, did not seek the party’s nomination and has been replaced on the ballot by Barry McElduff, who should soon be ‘keeping her lit’ as a Westminster MP.

South Down

The contest for South Down is being very closely watched with Sinn Fein tipped for a headline-grabbing victory.

It’s a two-horse race between sitting MP, the SDLP veteran Margaret Ritchie and Sinn Fein’s new-generation candidate Chris Hazzard.

The idea of South Down as an SDLP stronghold finally collapsed in the Assembly election when Sinn Fein clearly outstripped their nationalist rivals.

Incumbent Margaret Ritchie has been a fading star since she took over the seat from SDLP stalwart Eddie McGrady. The party’s efforts to engage Sinn Fein with petty online squabbles have made little impact in the mainstream media, and the seat once held by infamous Ulster Unionist Enoch Powell could soon be in Sinn Fein hands.

Mid-Ulster

Sinn Fein is likely to reinforce its dominance in Mid-Ulster, with voter apathy the only competition. The election is practically a one-horse race with current MP Francie Molloy expected to reclaim the seat his party has held for two decades.

The veteran republican replaced former first minister Martin McGuinness as the area’s MP after winning a by-election in 2013.

The constituency has significance for Sinn Fein when it provided an important electoral boost for the party after Mr McGuinness famously unseated the DUP’s country-and-western preacher, Willie McCrea, in 1997.

Molloy can also expect a boost from the fact that the constituency is home to the party’s new northern leader Michelle O’Neill, who helped to increase the SF vote here in the recent assembly elections.

Foyle

In Foyle, it’s all about for the fight for the heart of nationalism between Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Sinn Fein’s candidate, Elisha McCallion was one of the big stories of the March assembly election when she topped the poll in Foyle. It was the first time the party outpolled the SDLP in a city that is seen as its true heartland.

She’s standing against former SDLP leader, Mark Durkan who has held the seat ever since the party’s founder, John Hume retired.

In 2015, amid republican disenchantment with Stormont politics, Durkan confounded pundits when he defeated previous Sinn Fein candidate and former Derry mayor, Gerry O hEara with a sizable 6,000 majority.

The question is will the recent uptick for Sinn Fein in Derry and their new-generation candidate be enough to overturn that majority. It appears to be a choice between a fresh young face and the respected standard-bearer, but the outcome will depend on how much Sinn Fein has won back its traditional republican support base.

South Antrim

Covering swathes of Presbyterian heartland, the constituency voted in favour of Brexit last June and will again see a battle between the two flavours of unionism.

The unseating of the DUP’s William McCrea, a Free Presbyterian minister, by the Ulster Unionist’s Danny Kinahan in the 2015 election was a big blow to the party.

Kinahan has admitted he is “likely to have a battle” with the high-profile DUP Assembly member Paul Girvan and the result will be “very, very close”. Much will depend on whether nationalists will again vote tactically to keep out a man who has made headlines for saying he had “no problem” with the Irish tricolour being burnt on loyalist bonfires.

Kinahan will also win support as one of only two unionists to express support for the Equal Marriage Bill when tabled by Sinn Fein in 2015.

Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney, who topped the poll in the last Assembly election, will be looking to again build his party’s vote here, but Kinahan looks like the lesser of two evils for most nationalists.

Lagan Valley

If March’s assembly election is anything to go by, the DUP’s ultra-safe seat may take a hit due to a combination of disaffected unionist voter apathy and a higher turnout for nationalist and other parties.

Jeffrey Donaldson comfortably held the seat ever since he defected to the party in 2005. He has maintained a high public profile and is not expected to experience any real threat to his Westminster seat this time out. Most of the interest is likely to be on whether there is an increased nationalist vote here as part of a continuing demographic shift.

West Belfast

A seat long held by Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s Paul Maskey is again expected to retain his party’s seat here.

However, West Belfast remains one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in Western Europe, and socialist People before Profit has made dramatic inroads.

While 20 years of relative peace has seen some dividend, it is still a community blighted by high levels of unemployment and poor health, with the lowest life expectancy in the north at 74 years and the highest number of people claiming disability benefits.

However, People before Profit Gerry Carroll has vowed to take his seat in Westminster, likely wrecking any chance he may have had of making winning republican votes. As a result, Sinn Fein’s vote share, which declined sharply here in 2015, looks set to recover.

East Belfast

Alliance’s Naomi Long and the DUP’s Gavin Robinson are again battling it out for this bellwether constituency.

In the 2015 Westminster election, Mr Robinson managed to unseat Mrs Long with the help of a unionist pact in which rival unionist parties stood aside to give him a solo run.

The DUP had made reclaiming the constituency its top priority after Mrs Long defeated then First Minister Peter Robinson in 2010.

Unlike 2015, East Belfast is not included in a formal unionist pact. It’s unclear whether this will have a significant impact on Mr Robinson’s vote. The Ulster Unionists have put forward a candidate, but smaller unionist parties PUP and TUV have stayed away from the contest.

Much will depend on whether nationalists and progressives vote tactically to keep Robinson out.

East Antrim

The quest to reclaim both family honour and East Antrim from the DUP’s Sammy Wilson by Roy Beggs Jr is officially over, with the UUP man declining another attempt at taking back the Westminster seat that once belonged to his father.

Barring a spectacular DUP implosion, Sammy Wilson will be returning to again claim that unionist seat here.

Sinn Fein veteran Oliver McMullan, the first candidate to win an assembly seat for his party here, will look to further build support for what may be his last time as a candidate in any poll.

South Belfast

South Belfast was once a staunchly unionist seat held by senior Orangeman Martin Smith, but saw a breakthrough for former SDLP leader and incumbent Alasdair McDonnell 12 years ago.

Sinn Fein’s own media mogul, Mairtin O Muilleoir, and DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, one of the party’s ‘baby barristers’, make the race a well-heeled three-way battle.

The latter pair clashed during a TV debate on Thursday night. In a heated exchange, after being urged by the DUP candidate to condemn the IRA, Mr O Muilleoir pointedly referred to Ms Pengelly’s father Noel Little, who was arrested in connection with a loyalist plot to exchange a missile stolen from Shorts for South African guns.

He noted Ms Pengelly was also controversially endorsed in a magazine connected to the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group.

The constituency does not reflect the traditional divides, however, as it has transformed in recent decades with an influx of students and a large transient population. A lot will depend on how many of these have registered to vote and will turn up on the day.

Efforts to create a ‘progressive’ or anti-Brexit alliance foundered over criticism of McDonnell, a socially conservative doctor. But the SDLP is adamant that their candidate is the only one who can defeat the DUP. They are probably right, although McDonnell’s election fortunes are fading fast.

East Derry

Based on previous general election results, it’s difficult to see anyone unseating the DUP’s Gregory Campbell in East Derry. The constituency, a mix of urban and rural, is interesting nevertheless as there are a number of fresh faces this time out and demographics are a concern.

Sitting Assembly member, Caoimhe Archibald represented Sinn Fein in 2015 and retained the party’s core vote. She has been replaced by general election new-comer, Dermot Nicholl, a native of Greysteel, and currently the Sinn Fein group leader on the local council.

North Belfast

The selection here by Sinn Fein of John Finucane, the respected human rights lawyer, has seized the political centre ground in what has long been a highly polarised constituency.

Finucane, whose father Pat, also a lawyer, was shot dead by loyalists in 1989, joined the party after being approached to stand as a candidate. He has already won a large spectrum of support, from moderate unionists to hardline republicans.

His rival is arch Brexiteer and DUP hardliner, Nigel Dodds.

The previous high water mark for Sinn Fein here came in 2010, when Gerry Kelly came within 2,224 votes of Nigel Dodds. It looks set to be exceeded this time out with Sinn Fein pulling out all the stops, Finucane received the only celebrity endorsement of the campaign in the six Counties when he won the support of renowned film director Ken Loach.

Supporters believe it would be a fitting legacy for his family’s sacrifice were John Finucane to be returned to the chamber where his father was notoriously set up for assassination by former Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hogg in 1989 with his remarks about ‘IRA lawyers’.

North Down

One of the safest unionist seats at Westminster, the only question to be answered in North Down is whether the DUP can pull off a surprise and overturn the majority of independent unionist MP Sylvia Hermon.

One of the north’s longest serving MPs, having represented the affluent but quirky constituency in Westminster for 16 years, the veteran MP attracts a large personal vote and should be safe. Moderates and progressives are also likely to rally behind her to stave off the increasing menace of the DUP here.

North Antrim

Sinn Fein’s Philip McGuigan unexpectedly topped the poll in March’s assembly elections but his party colleague Cara McShane is not expected to replicate that achievement in the face of expected unionist support for DUP veteran Ian Paisley Jr.

His support for Brexit, given that this has been billed as the ‘Brexit election’ is unlikely to work against him even in a strong farming community which has relied heavily on European Union subsidies.

There will also be interest in the performance of TUV leader Jim Allister, who has referred to North Antrim as his party’s “heartland area” and has decided his party will only contest this seat.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone

The constituency once represented by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands delivered one of the upsets of the 2015 general election.

Despite gaining the seat five years previously with a majority of just four votes, Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew was the odds-on favourite to triumph again two years ago. Instead, a unionist pact - which saw the DUP stand aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Newry and Armagh in return for a clear run in East Belfast and North Belfast - enabled former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott to come out 530 votes ahead.

Had the SDLP stepped aside, the former Stormont agriculture minister would have held the seat comfortably. Nationalist voters will think twice this time before allowing Elliott, known for his sectarian attitudes, to hold onto his seat here, despite again getting a clear run at the unionist vote by the DUP.

Strangford

One of those frustrating constituencies where the DUP appears implacably in control, the main interest is likely to be whether the nationalist/unionist vote share has changed.

Jim Shannon of the DUP has held the seat here since 2001 when Iris Robinson overturned the UUP’s dominance in the constituency.

‘TV Mike’ Nesbitt, the former leader of the UUP, could well improve his party’s stance here thanks to his high profile. But it would seem likely that Shannon will retain his seat once again.

Newry and Armagh

At the heart of the Brexit ‘hard border’ debate, Newry and Armagh should be a safe seat for Sinn Fein.

It attracted more than 40 per cent of the vote in the last three Westminster elections - 2005, 2010 and again in 2015. The latest polls suggest the UUP and SDLP are again vying for second.

Sinn Fein’s local MP Mickey Brady said this election is an opportunity for people to vote against “the Tory Brexit agenda and austerity”, and they will. How much is the only question.

© 2017 Irish Republican News