Fermanagh/South Tyrone just one of several seats on a knife-edge

Posted By: April 07, 2015

Alex Kane. letters@newsletter.co.uk

Monday ,  April 6,  2015        
With most of the candidates now declared we have a clearer picture of where the real
battles are going to take place on May 7.

Fermanagh/South Tyrone remains the most interesting and the unionist parties –
particularly the UUP – are hoping that the high-profile Tom Elliott can wrest it
back from Michelle Gildernew.

On paper his chances look good, because her majority is just one vote. But it is
worth noting that between 1997 and 2010 the unionist vote at general elections has
fallen from 24,862 to 21,000; while Sinn Fein’s has risen from 11,174 to 21,304. 

Indeed, 2010 was the first occasion when the Sinn Fein vote was higher than the
overall unionist vote. Ok, it was a mere whisker, but it was still a whisker. 

It seems likely that the SDLP vote will continue to slip – as it has done since 1997
– so Elliott needs to squeeze every single pro-Union vote in that constituency.

And that means squeezing that section of the DUP vote which has never voted UUP. It
may not be a huge number, but the fact remains that he needs every single one of
them – and I do mean every single one – on board if Gildernew is to be beaten.

The odds remain slightly in Gildernew’s favour and she has the advantage of
incumbency (and a very weak SDLP candidate): but everything is still to play for,
for both main candidates.

The UUP is also hoping that it can pull off surprise victories in both Upper Bann
and South Antrim. Upper Bann is unlikely at this point, because I sense that some
unionists fear that an even split between the UUP (who have a very strong and
popular candidate in Jo-Anne Dobson) and the DUP’s David Simpson would allow Sinn
Fein’s Catherine Seeley to come through the middle.

I think it would take a perfect storm of conditions and circumstances for that to
happen, but even the fear that it could (and Sinn Fein will talk it up) happen will
be enough to keep disgruntled voters in the DUP camp.

South Antrim is a much more likely prospect, though. William McCrea’s majority is
just 1,183 and the TUV and Ukip are also in the running.

In 2010 UCUNF fielded Sir Reg Empey, but they left it until almost the last moment
and he may have been damaged by accusations that he was “just a carpetbagger from
east Belfast”.

This time the UUP are fielding local MLA Danny Kinahan. He will be hoping that his
own profile will add votes to the 2010 tally and he’ll also be hoping that the TUV
and Ukip will eat into McCrea’s vote rather than his.

DUP sources have admitted that McCrea is “more vulnerable than Simpson”, but they’ll
also be hoping that the TUV and Ukip will do much greater damage to Kinahan than to

While TUV and Ukip have no chance of winning any seats this time it is clear that
they are preparing for the 2016 Assembly election by gauging their strengths. 

Interestingly they seem to be concentrating on those seats where the UUP has either
no MLAs or just the one.

So in North Down, Strangford, East Antrim, South Antrim, North Antrim, Mid-Ulster
and Lagan Valley there are TUV and Ukip candidates: while Ukip is also contesting
Foyle (no UUP MLA) and South Down (where Henry Reilly will be hoping to take John
McCallister’s scalp next year). 

I’m still surprised that TUV stayed out of East Belfast, because I think it weakens
their argument about being seriously anti-DUP and will make it much more difficult
for them to pick up a seat in 2016. 

I had thought that the DUP were staying out of the North Down race, but at the end
of last week they announced Alex Easton MLA as their runner.

The UUP aren’t standing, which seems a little odd considering the fact that they
need to be ‘blooding’ candidates for next year.

Instead, they withdrew a candidate and said they were backing Lady Hermon.

This caused a flurry of excitement, with some people thinking that she would be
rejoining the party: but she told me at the time, “I am not joining any party or
rejoining the UUP”.

I wrote about East Belfast a couple of weeks ago (before TUV/Ukip/PUP confirmed they
wouldn’t be standing) and my view remains the same: it’s not impossible that Naomi
Long could win – yet the odds are hugely against her.

South Belfast is also one to watch. Alasdair McDonnell will probably hold it, but
there is still an outside chance that the DUP’s Jonathan Bell could sneak through
the middle if Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir performs well and the UUP’s Rodney
McCune performs badly.

The UUP will be praying that Bell doesn’t win, because an MP usually guarantees a
second MLA and Michael McGimpsey was just sixth in first preference votes in 2011
(having been top position in 1998 and 2003).

Every columnist worth his salt has to make a call on these occasions: if only
because it allows you to come back and remind me where and how I got it wrong!

At this point – and I may revisit the call in my May 4 column – I’m calling eight
DUP, five Sinn Fein, three SDLP, one UUP and one independent.

That said, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Upper Bann, East Belfast, South Antrim and South
Belfast are all still in play.