Simpson (DUP) 16,679 (37.6%)
Trimble (UUP) 11,281 (25.5%)
O’Dowd (SF) 9.305 (21.0%)
Kelly (SDLP) 5,747 (13.0%)
Castle (Alliance) 955 (2.2%)
French (WP) 355 (0.8%)
The Upper Bann constituency was created back in 1983, substantially hived off from the old Armagh constituency, and indeed it was represented from the outset by the UUP’s Harold McCusker, who had held the Armagh seat since 1974. Harold was an odd, prickly character, seen as something of a hawk but not entirely averse to new thinking (as in the “Task Force” episode, where his criticism’s of the UUP’s lackadaisical leadership were quickly sat on), and also an old-style Labour Unionist, of a sort that’s almost disappeared now, with a substantial working-class base. He did a lot of the heavy lifting in the UUP’s negotiations with the Callaghan government, and was known to have an uneasy relationship with his colleague in the next-door constituency, Enoch Powell, whose High Toryism could not have been more alien to Harold. Such was the UUP in the days when it was a broad umbrella.
The constituency comprises north Armagh and a bit of west Down, namely the Craigavon local government district and half of the Banbridge district, including Banbridge town. The core of it, population-wise, is the Craigavon conurbation, comprising the towns of Lurgan and Portadown, and in between the lost city of Craigavon, a complex of estates and roundabouts – a bit like Milton Keynes – inhabited by people largely decanted from Belfast in the 1960s, the aim having been to create a mixed working-class city. This never really materialised. Both Lurgan and Portadown are very sharply divided into orange and green ends, and the Craigavon estates have become very much one thing or the other. The rural area northwest of the conurbation around the Lough Neagh shore is almost entirely Catholic; the villages to the immediate south and east almost entirely Protestant. On the other hand, the Banbridge area is much more mixed and generally a bit calmer.
As well as being strongly segregated, there’s also quite a bit of deprivation in the estates of the Craigavon conurbation. Not surprisingly, it’s also a hotbed of violent sectarianism. It was in fact in Loughgall, a few miles away in the Newry and Armagh constituency, that the Battle of the Diamond took place in 1795; but it was in this area, in the years immediately following, that the Orange Order grew up. In Lurgan and Portadown, some things have not changed a fierce amount in the interim. During the 1970s and 1980s this was the hub of the “Murder Triangle”, where the Mid-Ulster UVF of Robin Jackson and Billy Wright did their work; this was the site of the annual Drumcree protest in the 1990s; and there has been a lot more low-key stuff, like that unfortunate incident in 1988 where no fewer than seventeen past and serving unionist councillors were surcharged and disqualified for discrimination. On top of that you have insularity: it’s not just that Protestants and Catholics in Lurgan hate each other, they hate everybody outside Lurgan as well. As I say, the less populous Banbridge end of the constituency is a lot less mad – I like Banbridge, which is a nice mixed provincial town, although there’s been some unrest there more recently.
Now then, the polls. The 2001 census clocks in Upper Bann as about 55% Protestant and 43% Catholic, although the nationalist share has underperformed that, partly due to the sectarian age pyramid and partly due to tactical voting. You see, when Harold McCusker died in 1990 the by-election to replace him was won by David Trimble, who was then – and for quite a while afterwards – regarded as an Orange hardliner. Certainly, Trimble’s performance over Drumcree in the mid-90s could scarcely have been better calculated to alienate his Catholic constituents. However, there is some evidence that in the post-ceasefire period Trimble was actually the beneficiary of nationalist tactical voting to keep the DUP out.
This was probably decisive in 2001, when Trimble had a majority of barely 2000 over the DUP’s David Simpson. But it didn’t do him much good in the 2005 landslide, when Simpson overturned that majority and better, to cruise home with a majority of over 5000. Nonetheless, this is still the DUP’s second most vulnerable seat after South Antrim, and if the UCUNF project is to show any signs of life you’d expect it to be giving Simpson a run for his money. Note also the lack of a TUV candidate in an area where the TUV might be expected to have a base; there has been trouble in the Upper Bann TUV, and the party did poorly in the Lurgan council by-election, due not least to candidate David Calvert not being hugely popular even amongst TUV supporters. The TUV is calling for a vote for UCUNF in Upper Bann, so that makes things interesting.
In a way, Upper Bann is our own political equivalent of The X Factor. The incumbent Simpson is a well-known gospel singer, although I must stress that when I say gospel I mean he sings in the style of Willie McCrea rather than Aretha Franklin. On the other hand, UCUNF candidate Flash Harry is famed around the north and even beyond as a highly successful Freddie Mercury impersonator. Flash Harry may be an electoral novice, but after years of packing in the crowds for his renditions of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Don’t Stop Me Now”, he’s a natural performer with the kind of name recognition that money can’t buy. Actually, both Simpson and Flash Harry have business experience in their day jobs, but it’s the singing that catches the imagination.
The other thing to bear in mind is the increasing nationalist vote in the constituency, and in particular the Sinn Féin vote, which has gone from around 10% pre-ceasefire to over 25% at the 2007 Assembly election, and given John O’Dowd’s increased media profile, some of the more excitable Shinners have been talking up his chances. But for this to happen you’d need a perfect storm – an almost even split in the unionist vote, plus O’Dowd taking a large tactical vote from the SDLP. This is rather unlikely, especially since the SDLP vote is now at a level where it’s hard to see it being squeezed further, and sitting MLA Dolores Kelly, who was the first ever nationalist mayor of Craigavon, is a seasoned campaigner in the area. No, Upper Bann is one of those seats, like North Belfast or East Derry, that could conceivably become marginal in coming years, but not just yet. A shorter-term aim would be to push up the SF vote a few points – the party had nearly two quotas at the Stormont election, but only pulled in one seat (while the UUP, with fewer votes, scored two) thanks to a lack of transfers and poor balancing.
There’s little to be said about candidates outside the two blocs. Alliance used to have a small but significant vote in this area pre-ceasefire, as did The Workers Party via former Craigavon councillor and party president Tommy French, and the late Malachy McGurran before him in the old Republican Clubs days. However, there is no WP candidate this time, and in recent years Alliance in Upper Bann has been bumping along around the 2% mark.
It’s difficult, in short, to see Simpson actually losing in Upper Bann, and it would be a major upset if he did. But if Flash Harry can run him close, not least thanks to TUV tactical voting, it could give the DUP the kind of scare they gave Trimble in 2001.