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