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South Down Election Play

South Down will be one of the key seats which will provide a pulse across the pan-nationalist family. But Sinn Fein needs to de-select its candidate and unionists require an agreed runner if they are to topple sitting MP Eddie McGrady

Dr John Coulter • 5 April 2005

South Down MP Eddie McGrady - like the Ulster Unionists' David Trimble - may well find themselves the sole Westminster standardbearers for their respective parties after the General Election on 5th May, the same day as Northern Ireland's local council elections.

Ulster Unionism and constitutional nationalism are destined for electoral meltdown on that date with the fear amongst many grassroots activists across the North that both parties are headed for the dustbin of history.

If opinion polls become voter realities, the SDLP and UUP could be joining other parties in that bygone era dustbin, such as the Irish Nationalist Party, the Irish Independence Party, the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, and the Vanguard Unionist Party.

Ironically, South Down may well be a cockpit constituency which defies the opinion polls and delivers any one of a number of potential surprises. The present Parliament had been awash with rumours that McGrady would retire, having converted South Down from a marginal with the UUP into a safe nationalist stronghold.

Such was McGrady's impressive record as a constituency MP, that after knocking out the previous MP, the legendary parliamentarian, the late Enoch Powell of the UUP in 1987, the SDLP man has built his Commons majority from several hundred votes into several thousand.

Such was the SDLP's lead in South Down, it seemed almost certain that either of two Down councillors, Margaret Ritchie or Eamonn O'Neill, would simply stroll into Westminster. That was until the Sinn Fein bandwagon started rolling across the North.

First, West Belfast fell to the republican movement. Then key SDLP target unionist marginals, such as West Tyrone, Mid Ulster, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, all went to Sinn Fein.

Further electoral disasters followed in 2003 and last year when Sinn Fein outgunned the SDLP in the Assembly elections to become the voice of Northern nationalism, with the ultimate humiliation coming in the European poll when the party lost John Hume's ultra-safe seat again to Sinn Fein.

With Hume retiring in Foyle, and former deputy leader Seamus Mallon retiring in South Down's neighbouring constituency of Newry and Armagh, the SDLP is looking at meltdown and a formal merger with Fianna Fail as the only way forward after 5th May.

McGrady remains the sole champion who can prevent more than a generation of SDLP representation in the Commons being electorally obliterated in a single day.

Whilst his majority may be in doubt, McGrady has only realistically be dumped as MP if certain changes in the electoral scenery come into play in the coming weeks.

What is certain is the steady growth in the Sinn Fein vote across the constituency, doubling its representation in the last Assembly election. But is Sinn Fein newcomer MLA Caitriona Ruane the right person to unseat McGrady?

Sinn Fein has certainly mastered the tactic of vote management, but has it effectively mastered candidate management in South Down? Ruane is closely identified with the Colombia Three campaign.

Had she been able to parade the three republicans through Downpatrick, she would have been hailed as a modern-day Countess Markievicz, one of the republican heroines of the failed Easter Rising. With such a tide of republican euphoria behind her, Ruane would have romped home in South Down with a thumping majority which would have been the envy of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness themselves.

But she hasn't, and the Colombia Three are still on the run and have become tarnished with the perception that the republican movement is wading knee-deep in criminality.

The secret to winning South Down is to score highly with the affluent so-called middle class Catholic 'oyster belt'. Just as neighbouring North Down has witnessed the development of a middle class Protestant 'oyster belt', the mirror image is also true of South Down.

The 'oyster belt' description refers to those middle class voters who have developed affluent and politically comfortable careers and lifestyles in spite of the horrors of a generation of the Troubles.

The Northern Bank heist and McCartney killing have also fuelled the perception the republican movement is still run by the IRA's Army Council, not Sinn Fein's political representatives. To steal the Catholic 'oyster belt' from McGrady, Ruane needs to convince South Down's middle classes she represents a new generation of 'politics only' republican.

Her links to the Colombia Three campaign will not develop such confidence in the Catholic middle class. She needs to politically 'decouple' herself and South Down Sinn Fein from the perception she is merely an Army Council puppet.

Either that, or South Down Sinn Fein must de-select her and vote in someone born and bred in the constituency who has not direct or indirect links to the Provisionals themselves.

However, the amount of dissident republican activity in the constituency since the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, shows there is still a significant amount of support amongst republicans for the concept of 'armed struggle'. South Down Sinn Fein has built its power base on the natural support of the republican family for the IRA.

Clearly, Ruane would be shooting herself in the foot if she was to publicly distance herself from the Army Council to woo middle class Catholics. However, she still clinched an Assembly seat in spite of the additional perception that she was 'parachuted' into the constituency by the Sinn Fein leadership.

However, a growth in the Sinn Fein vote, along with a general slip in support for the SDLP could benefit the unionist camp - provided they can agree on a single candidate. This could see a return to a 1986 by-election scenario where Powell retained his seat with an 1,800 vote majority because of a split nationalist vote.

In the overall unionist camp, Down DUP councillor and MLA Jim Wells is the man of the moment. Although the Ulster Unionists have selected leading Trimbleista MLA Dermot Nesbitt as their runner, there is no chance of a unionist taking the seat with two runners in the field.

Whilst an opponent of the Good Friday Agreement, Paisley man Wells has been building a strong, credible reputation amongst many grassroots UUP voters. With the DUP now the leading unionist party in the North, Wells is emerging as the potential agreed unionist candidate.

Just as the Paisley camp supported Powell as South Down MP when the UUP was the lead unionist party, the DUP will be looking to South Down UUP voters to return the favour and support Wells.

With an agreed unionist candidate and a maximum turnout of unionist voters along with an evenly split nationalist camp, there is the numerical possibility of McGrady being ousted.

However, with two unionist runners, and a growing Sinn Fein vote, there is the possibility a significant number of unionists could vote tactically for McGrady to keep Ruane out.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

6 April 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Criminality and Public Relations
Eamon Sweeney

Truth Better than Spin
Mick Hall

The Central Issue is Justice
Catherine McCartney

Not Out of Nationalist Woods Yet
David Adams

South Down Election Play
John Coulter

Are We on the Verge of a New Political Ice Age?
Anthony McIntyre

28 March 2005

The Writing's Off the Wall!
Catherine McGlinchey

Ireland: Republican Movement faces disintegration
Paul Mallon

The IRA is Morphing into the 'Rafia'
Anthony McIntyre

Truth and Justice!
Sheila Holden

Greet the Lion to Kill the Cat
Àine Fox

Concerned Republican
N. Corey

Six Against the Rock
Anthony McIntyre

Our Patriot Dead Are Turning in their Graves
Margaret Quinn

Easter Oration 2005
32 CSM

Easter Statement from the Leadership of the Republican Movement 2005

RSF Vice President Calls On Provisionals To Disband
Des Dalton, RSF

Easter Statement from the Leadership of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement
Andy Gallagher, IRSP

Easter Statement from the Irish National Liberation Army Prisoners of War

Caribbean Sinn Fein Easter Message
Jimmy Sands



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