A DUP wipeout in North Down?

For the first time in almost 60 years, I will not be an active participant in a North Down election. Since the 1960’s I have been involved in over 40 North Down elections at many levels Council, Assembly, Forum, Westminster and Europe as a candidate, agent, organiser or merely a canvasser. So, I am now able to comment freely on the Assembly election which I believe will be the most interesting of the past 50 years.

North Down “unionist” tradition

While North Down is considered a unionist constituency with up to 90% of the population from a Protestant background it is not a traditional unionist seat. It prides itself on its independence and its last three MPs Jim Kilfedder, Robert McCartney and Lady Sylvia Hermon all left the UUP to form their own party or sit as Independents. This did not affect their support as the voters backed the person not the party. Independents also do very well in council elections regularly topping the poll. However, no nationalist or republican ever won a seat on North Down council.

 The election raises the possibility that the DUP the party which has dominated North Down politics for 20 years and elected 3 MLAs in 2011 and 2014 will return to its 1997 position when it failed to get anyone elected. This will largely be determined by how well its former leading vote getter Alex Easton now standing as an Independent Unionist can retain his vote and the public reaction to the divisions within the party itself.

In recent years North Down has returned 3 unionists 2 others

The election of Alliance’s Steven Farry as Westminster MP would suggest that this pattern may have changed but I will initially consider the case that 3 Unionists will be elected.

Which 3 Unionists?

Alex Easton (Independent Unionist) Alex has served as MLA since 2003 and topped the poll in the last 4 elections. He is widely recognised as a hardworking MLA and there have been many comments such as “if Alex was not in the DUP I would have voted for him. He has also gained respect as he has not been involved in or tainted by the DUPs recent internal problems.

Alan Chambers (Ulster Unionist Party) longstanding North Down councillor who was first elected to the Assembly in 2017.

Stephen Dunne (DUP) A former councillor who was recently co-opted to replace his father Gordon who died in 2021.

A. N Other (DUP) I am not aware of any selected candidate, but I assume the DUP will pick a second candidate probably an Ards & North Down councillor. An outside possibility would be former DUP leader Edwin Poots who is now homeless and whose father won a North Down Assembly seat in 1982. (My first Assembly election)

Naomi McBurney (Ulster Unionist Party) A newcomer to politics reflecting Beattie’s aim to change the party image and create a younger more diverse party open to change. This is long overdue as when I was elected in 2007 the 38 UUP candidates included a single woman North Down councillor Marion Smith.

John Gordon (TUV) Stood previously for DUP for North Down Council in 1997 but failed to get elected. The party have had no success in North Down as Jim Alister’s popularity rarely transfers to local candidates. The last time the party contested the seat (2016) it got 1.9% of vote. It is likely to benefit from the turmoil in DUP but unlikely to seriously contest a seat.

The Others

Alliance have always been the main non-unionist party in North Down and in 2019 Farry the Alliance deputy leader won the North Down seat at Westminster.

Andrew Muir (Alliance) A former North Down Councillor who was co-opted to the Assembly to replace Farry

Connie Egan (Alliance) A councillor on Ards and North Down council.

Rachel Woods (Green Party) A former councillor who was co-opted to the Assembly when the previous party leader Steven Agnew resigned.

North Down normally attracts several independent candidates and it is possible that Councillor Ray McKimm will stand as an Independent. He has been an extremely active councillor and could do quite well.

Initial prediction

Based on previous elections, the safest prediction would probably be Easton and one seat each for Alliance, UUP, DUP and Greens.

However, this is not like previous elections Alliance have won the Westminster seat. The turmoil in the DUP could seriously affect their vote and the fact that their leading vote winner is standing as an independent would suggest that they will lose at least one of their 2 seats. Before recent events the polls showed the party to have lost significant support with Alliance, UUP and TUV gaining. The only thing that can save the DUPS 2 seats is the traditional appeal for ALL UNIONISTS to vote DUP to prevent a Sinn Fein First Minister. This may be less effective this time as many unionists have lost all trust in the party.

The only certainties are that both the UUP and Alliance will win one seat, Easton and the Greens will probably retain their seats. The Greens seem to have built up a solid base in North Down since I first won the seat in 2007

This leaves one seat which will be strongly contested by the second Alliance candidate, the second UUP candidate and the DUP.

I will update my thoughts when the actual campaign begins but I seriously believe that the DUP could lose both their North Down seats.

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