North Down is a district neatly situated at the tip of the picturesque landscape of Strangford Lough. It features affluent coastal villages, tending to exude a cosmopolitan air more akin to that of a constituency in East Anglia across the water. On a cultural level, it is also famed for being the motherland of the Northern Irish music pantheon. Amongst a few names that continue to conjure considerable critical and popular recognition include Snow Patrol with their abiding power ballads, three-piece Donaghadee indie outfit Two Door Cinema Club, who have ascended to the premier league of the European alternative scene, as well as Conlig-born blue-eyed soul extraordinaire Foy Vance, who saw commercial endorsement from pop tycoon Ed Sheeran’s independently owned Gingerbread Man label in 2015. However, the musical harmony permeating this particular area of Northern Ireland is unlikely to translate in electoral terms. Amidst veteran MP (Independent, former UUP) Sylvia Hermon’s dramatic resignation three weeks ago, North Down’s electorate will be confronted with the same conundrum that emerged almost a decade earlier when Lady Hermon withdrew her backing from the UUP/Tory alliance. The voting demographic (typically unionist) will be left deliberating over whom they consider the most adept candidate within the unionist bloc. Despite this, critics have observed a meteoric rise in the non-aligned Alliance party vote in recent polls. Indeed, this development has given rise to punditry opinion of a shock Alliance gain of the constituency in the scenario of the unionist vote being fragmented across the DUP’s Alex Easton and UUP MLA Alan Chambers. Will the Alliance party successfully see off the respective efforts of the UUP and DUP in stymying decades of unionist domination of the constituency?
There is no doubt that the progression of political sentiment within the constituency has been gradual. Many will recall the then prominent vociferous anti-GFA campaigner, Robert McCartney. He was amongst many senior politicians that publicly collided with erstwhile Labour PM Tony Blair as he canvassed on behalf of the Good Friday Agreements ‘YES’ campaign in Holywood. In 1995, he claimed the constituency’s Westminster seat in a by-election amid defecting from mainstream unionism in 1987 and prevailed on his self-made brand of uncompromising unionism, namely the UKUP. The party prided itself on its unwavering opposition to the integration of Sinn Féin and other elements of the republican movement to a newly established local Executive. Nonetheless, the old-school reactionary unionist mantra of ‘No’ formerly propagated by the likes of Mr. McCartney seems to have long lost its resonance amongst North Down’s constituents. In fact, May’s local elections statistics would indicate the complete opposite, and it has already sounded alarm bells across rival unionism.
Alliance and its leftist counterparts the Green Party enjoyed unprecedented success within the North Down territory of the Ards Borough Council consistently topping the polls in all DEAs. Remarkably, this emerging trend in voting behaviour lends credence to the belief that interest regarding the constitutional question has somewhat dissipated amongst this electorate. Its constituents appear to be more ardently invested in issues such as the looming impact of Brexit and the global climate crisis, the latter which has broadly been unaddressed by unionist leadership in Northern Ireland.
Now, who would seem like the most desirable candidate to opt for in the context of this prevailing climate of opinion?
Alliance MP candidate Stephen Farry is a household name in terms of Northern Irish political folklore. Farry has been involved in frontline devolved politics for over twenty years. He even assumed an Executive post in the Sinn Féin-DUP power-sharing coalition as Employment and Learning minister until its subsequent dissolution 2016. Whilst in office, his attempts to de-sectarianize education were largely hampered by the aforementioned political silos. Individually, he has forged a reputation as a candid conciliator, an unapologetic exponent of EU integration and a long-standing campaigner for furthering the implementation of integrated education in Northern Ireland. Thus, when conflating the healthy surge in the non-aligned vote in the freshest North Down poll and the progressive, pro-EU narrative Farry continues to preach, it would be vacuous to suggest that he isn’t a formidable contender.
Arguably, what is perhaps more disconcerting statistically speaking for unionist rivals, was his performance in the 2017 snap assembly election in the wake of RHI scandal. Farry closed the first preference gap to a mere 1000 votes within the DUP’s Alex Easton, which was previously a margin of nearly 5000. Since 2017, public faith hasn’t exactly been restored in the DUP amongst sections of grassroots unionism, who claim that their alignment with the Tory administration and subsequent withdrawal agreement brokered under the auspices of Johnson has now jeopardized NI’s constitutional status within the Union.
Recent weeks have also seen many high profile unionist entrepreneurs (many of whom reside in the constituency) publicly air their disillusionment concerning Westminster’s treatment of NI as a ‘disposable asset’ and declared their attention to vote alternatively for the first time ever. With the present zeitgeist of the constituency appearing to be felicitously on Farry’s side, any sane polling guru would not discount his prospects on making it to London’s green benches on 12thDecember.
Upon Sylvia Hermon’s shock resignation, it became apparent to moderate unionism that fielding a high-profile candidate was certainly amongst the criteria for fighting this election with any potential success. Notwithstanding contentions made by veteran reporter Brian Rowan that UUP leader Steve Aiken made the incredulous move of approaching outgoing PSNI chief constable George Hamilton to re-enter public life to contest the seat under a UUP ticket, esteemed Alderman Alan Chambers is to set to fight the marginal seat. Ironically Chambers also has professional background is in policing, but in a totally disparate capacity to that of Hamilton, serving as a part time RUC reservist in the area throughout the Troubles. Additionally, he is a spokesperson for the Northern Irish Policing Board, has professed his desire to remain within the EU and is widely perceived as being an honest and industrious community representative for North Down over the last 30 years. Some critics have maintained that the challenge presented by the well-respected liberal unionist may be too much for his main respective competitors Easton and Farry, as Chambers seems to be offering a direct continuity of the Hermon legacy in Westminster, a legacy much celebrated by her electors on the ground.
Finally, for DUP Alex Easton, pragmatic pollsters will argue that the 2017’s fractional margin between him and Hermon ultimately renders his election to the Commons inevitable. Easton will strive to galvanise the thrust of the working class loyalist vote that is overwhelmingly situated within North Down’s housing estates. Although, tentatively speaking Easton is the favourite, the DUP stalwart is destined to lose some votes to his more moderate leaning rivals. Fears amongst grassroots loyalists have already been cemented at this eventuality. In late November, the Irish News reported that rogue loyalist activists within the region had been engaged in distributing literature equating the APNI to the IRA. This lowest common denominator political strategy is common currency amongst elements of unionist bigotry. If anything, it illustrates how anxiety across sections of unionism is palpable and the paranoia at the prospect of Farry’s election to Westminster is alive and well. Notably, in May 2019, UUP councillor Jim Rodgers swiftly unearthed that this tack no longer pays the political dividends than perhaps it did in the past. In May’s local elections, Rodgers imprudently stooped to the scaremongering APNI/IRA strategy in the DEA of Ormiston. Rodgers issued leaflets of a similar nature around hundreds of East Belfast residencies. What ensued in the area? An Alliance landslide.
This unique contest won’t be won on smears, political point-scoring or intimidation. It is too marginal for that. All parties will have to sustain a vigorous campaign to ensure the turnout is high, unlike that of the last election where turnout was the lowest in any NI constituency.
Co authored with Garrett Byrne.
Prediction: Too close to call, recount on the night.
The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.
View more posts