Know your constituency: North Down

2005 result:
Hermon (UUP) 16,268 (50.4%)
Weir (DUP) 11,324 (35.1%)
Alderdice (Alliance) 2,451 (7.6%)
Logan (SDLP) 1,009 (3.1%)
Robertson (Cons) 822 (2.5%)
Carter (Ind) 211 (0.7%)
McCrory (SF) 205 (0.6%)

2010 candidates: Steven Agnew (Green), Stephen Farry (Alliance), Lady Sylvia Hermon (Ind), Kaye Kilpatrick (TUV), Liam Logan (SDLP), Vincent Parker (SF), Ian “Not Paisley” Parsley (UCUNF)

In North Down, neither of the two parties that topped the poll last time out is running this time, although the incumbent is widely expected to win. And that isn’t the only weird thing about North Down, the north’s most singular constituency.

North Down, as currently constituted, is the coastal strip immediately to the east of Belfast, centring on Bangor. It takes in the whole of the North Down borough, as well as Donaghadee and Millisle from Ards borough. It’s by far the wealthiest constituency in the north, popularly known as the Gold Coast, taking in some really plush areas like the millionaires’ hide-out of Cultra. Paul Theroux once said it was the only place in the north that seemed to have a middle class in the British sense. The cliché that divides North Down into the haves and the have-yachts is a bit of an exaggeration, but it isn’t entirely untrue, either. Middle-class and middle-aged is the predominant profile. There is a working-class element, especially in the massive Kilcooley estate, one of those estates you get that consists mostly of families decanted from the Shankill in the 1970s, but respectable North Down folk like to pretend that Kilcooley isn’t there.

The other interesting thing is the sectarian balance, or lack thereof. In the 2001 census, a whopping 25% of the population in North Down were categorised as “none or not stated” under the religion question – easily the highest of any constituency. When we apply the “community background” question, which is what NISRA use to distinguish Protestant atheists from Catholic atheists, that drops to just over 6%, basically people from outside the north. But the huge leap from one to the other shows you that a lot of people in North Down consider themselves outside, or rather above, the sectarian divide. It helps that the area was barely touched by the Troubles, and that there are too few Catholics (9.2% by identification, 11.7% by community background, the lowest outside of East Belfast) to really make a sectarian divide. There are some middle-class Catholics, mostly ex-Belfast, in Holywood and west Bangor, but there are no discrete nationalist areas (the nationalist vote in North Down has never exceeded 6%), and as you go eastwards the area becomes more homogeneous until you reach the almost entirely Protestant towns of Donaghadee and Millisle.

These factors are what give North Down its political complexion – unionist, yes, but with a liberal streak, and with a distinct liking for quirky independent candidates. The prototype for this was Sir Jim Kilfedder, MP from 1970 to 1995, who was originally elected for the UUP but left that party in 1977 after a row with Enoch Powell. Jim remained as the local MP thereafter, simultaneously being something of a liberal and having good relations with the DUP, until his sudden death in 1995 following an unfortunate incident involving Peter Tatchell.[1] In the meantime, and despite not being opposed by the main unionist parties, he had withstood a couple of unusual yet strong challenges. In 1987 the local UUP selected Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney as their candidate on an integrationist platform[2], only for the UUP leadership to expel both McCartney and the local association. McCartney polled a good 30% as a “Real Unionist”; in 1992 the Tory candidate Laurence Kennedy also pulled in 30%, at the height of the Ulster Tories’ brief popularity, which was unsurprisingly strongest in North Down.

McCartney, then, won the 1995 by-election for his newly-minted UK Unionist Party, much to the horror of the UUP who had assumed the seat would revert to them. It’s strange to recall now, but at the time Big Bob was seen as a liberal, his closest political ally was Kate Hoey (an expatriate Ulster Unionist in the British Labour Party) and he even promised to take the Labour whip in the Commons, although that didn’t transpire. But Bob was never secure, thanks to numerous factors like falling out with almost all his political collaborators, switching from a liberal pose to out-righting the DUP, and perhaps most fatally during the GFA referendum campaign describing the population of Holywood as “rent-a-mob”. The respectable folk of Holywood never forgave him for that, and so it was that Sylvia Hermon beat him handily for the UUP in 2001, even when the party was in retreat elsewhere; Sylvia remained the UUP’s sole MP following the 2005 DUP landslide.

Which brings us bang up to date. As we’ve already recounted here, Sylvia was never a fan of the UCUNF project lashing up the UUP to the Tories and, since she’s more or less been her own boss in Parliament since 2005, has functioned as a de facto Labour MP. That, to cut a long story short, is why she’s running as an independent, and will probably win.

The point is that, had Reg Empey’s “civic unionism” project not involved an alliance with David Cameron, Sylvia would have fit right in. She’s personally extremely popular, enjoying good relations with DUP MPs, getting warm receptions at SDLP meetings and so on. An intelligent, attractive, elegant and articulate woman, moderate in her opinions and transparently a decent human being, she is popular outside the constituency amongst middle-class unionists who see her as the sort of unionist they would like to be represented by (and who, they’re painfully aware, could never be elected outside North Down). North Down voters love her because she reflects well on the area. The people who don’t like her are within the UUP, both the noisy Toryboy faction (for ideological reasons) and some longstanding elected representatives (because of the way she would show up her inadequate male colleagues in interviews). Her studied disdain for Reg Empey’s leadership hasn’t helped either.

What this boils down to is that, as long as Sylvia wants to stand, there is probably no candidate in North Down who can beat her. In 2005 she polled over 50% of the vote; in the local elections the same day the UUP pulled less than 23%. She pulled in votes from Alliance (whose local government vote was double their Westminster performance), from the Greens (who polled respectably for North Down council but didn’t run for Westminster) and from the SDLP, for whom a vote in North Down would be wasted anyway. Nor does it hurt that she’s the widow of a Chief Constable in a constituency with a very large police vote. If any candidate in the north has a personal vote, she is that candidate.

Her opponent from UCUNF is the Tory Ian Parsley, a former deputy mayor of North Down who polled respectably in the European election. But don’t let that fool you: Ian was Euro candidate for the Alliance Party, from which he defected to the Tories less than a year ago.[3] Indeed, in the 2005 local elections Ian came in dead last in the Holywood electoral division, only getting onto the council thanks to David Alderdice’s surplus. It’s hard to see what he brings to the UCUNF challenge – he isn’t an Ulster Unionist, doesn’t have a personal following amongst the Alliance voters of Holywood, and is not the sort of person who would obviously entice in DUP voters, although his young fogey style may resonate with those voters who liked the cut of Peter Weir’s jib. Also note the Tory vote of 2.5% in 2005, by far the best Tory showing in the north and indicating just how popular the British Conservative Party is here.

Speaking of Peter Weir, the DUP have chosen to stand down in Sylvia’s favour. But, while Peter is very much a New DUP candidate (he’s a defector from the UUP) and probably the majority of his vote is of that complexion too (as late as 1998 the DUP were only polling 7% here; most of the recent DUP expansion has been at the Cream Bun’s expense), not all of his vote will be a natural Hermon vote, and it’ll be interesting to see where that 35% goes. It’s not really a natural Parsley vote either, and the most one can say is that the TUV’s Kaye Kilpatrick will be putting in a strong bid for the unreconstructed part of the vote.

North Down is traditionally a strong area for Alliance, who’ve often polled in the high teens and sometimes in the low twenties; it should also be strong for the Greens, who have Brian Wilson as their sitting MLA in the constituency. In a first-past-the-post election, though, Stephen Farry and Steve Agnew are on a hiding to nothing, and will be facing a strong tactical squeeze from Hermon – especially Farry, since lots of Alliance voters will want to slap it up the turncoat Parsley. Mainly they’ll be jockeying for position ahead of next year’s PR elections, which are likely to be very unpredictable in North Down. As for the nationalist candidates, they may as well not bother here. They’re just running for form’s sake. Although it is nice to note that, in Liam Logan, the SDLP are running a prominent Ulster Scots native speaker.

[1] This was when Peter was waving around his list of twenty closeted gay MPs who he was going to out. One day the Belfast Telegraph reported that one of the MPs was local; the same day, Jim Kilfedder had a massive heart attack and dropped dead. OutRage! quietly revised their tactics after that.

[2] This relates to the fascinating story of the Campaign for Equal Citizenship, a bizarre alliance of dissident unionists, Ulster Tories, loyalist paramilitaries, gay rights activists and the British and Irish Communist Organisation. The BICO connection particularly perturbed the UUP leadership.

[3] Coincidentally, he’d just landed a job at Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice. But I’m sure that was only a coincidence.

Know your constituency: West Tyrone

2005 result:
Doherty (SF) 16,910 (38.9%)
Deeny (Ind) 11,905 (27.4%)
Buchanan (DUP) 7,742 (17.8%)
McMenamin (SDLP) 3,949 (9.1%)
Hussey (UUP) 2,981 (6.9%)

2010 candidates: Michael Bower (Alliance), Thomas Buchanan (DUP), Joe Byrne (SDLP), Pat Doherty (SF), Ross Hussey (UCUNF), Ciarán McClean (Ind)

West Tyrone is similar in many ways to the neighbouring constituency of Mid Ulster. Indeed, it’s more like the pre-1997 Mid Ulster than the current Mid Ulster is. It’s a big sprawling rural area, but makes for a fairly sensible and discrete natural unit, taking up the local government districts of Omagh and Strabane. It’s not quite as village-centric as Mid Ulster, though – Omagh is quite a nice market town. Strabane, on the other hand, has a reputation that precedes it, having topped the UK unemployment tables for years on end, and more recently being a fixture in the UK “Crap Towns” list. This does a slight disservice to Strabane, which isn’t nearly as unpleasant as legend would have it, but has suffered for a long time from small-town poverty and, during the Troubles, of being cut off from its Donegal hinterland. Strabane is also, fact fans, the birthplace of the late Brian Ó Nualláin, alias Myles na gCopaleen alias Flann O’Brien, which may explain a thing or two about Myles’ humour.

The community background according to the 2001 census was 68% Catholic to 31% Protestant, and as in Mid Ulster you have to factor in the geographical patchwork here. Strabane town, for instance, is almost exclusively Catholic, though there are Prods up the road in Sion Mills and more in the villages out towards Limavady. Castlederg used to be about 50/50, but has been trending Catholic more recently; Omagh town is theoretically mixed, although less so on the micro level. And of course, there are lots and lots of wee villages like Fintona and Beragh and Sixmilecross and Carrickmore, often associated strongly with one side or the other.

For a constituency only formed in 1997, West Tyrone has thrown up two quirky results in three elections. In the first one, the constituency actually went unionist as the UUP’s Willie Thompson polled 35% to 32% for the SDLP and 31% for Sinn Féin. But the seat was clearly a loaner, and in 2001 it was clearly going to whichever nationalist party could pull ahead – but which one? The SDLP threw the kitchen sink at West Tyrone, drafting in party veteran Bríd Rodgers from Upper Bann to carry their flag, with Alex Attwood incautiously telling reporters that West Tyrone was the SDLP’s Stalingrad, the decisive battle that would turn back the Provo tide. Some hacks actually swallowed this, failing to notice little signs like the 200 youthful SF canvassers pounding the streets of Omagh on the eve of poll. In the event, it should not have come as a surprise that Pat Doherty won quite easily.

After that, though, you had the Deeny Effect. In the 2003 Stormont election, the surprise of the campaign was local GP Kieran Deeny, running on the sole issue of saving the Omagh hospital, topping the poll and knocking out one of the SDLP’s two seats in the process. Deeny took votes from all over the place, notably the SDLP and UUP, and he repeated this by taking second place with 27% in the 2005 Westminster election, while the SDLP and UUP plunged into single figures. Deeny also retained his Assembly seat in 2007.

Dr Deeny, however, is not running this time, and it’ll be fascinating to see where his vote goes. If you compare the Westminster result in 2005 with that of the simultaneous local election, you see the DUP underperforming at Westminster by 500 and SF by 1800, but the UUP by 2800 (nearly half their vote) and the SDLP by a whopping 3700 (nearly half their vote). That big chunk of UUP and SDLP votes might be expected to migrate back to their original parties, but not all of them. The upward trend for SF and the DUP in West Tyrone has been braked, but not stopped, by the Deeny Effect; the decline of the SDLP and UUP exaggerated.

Who will win outright, and who will win on either side, are fairly predictable then. As so often, we’ll be looking at the percentages to see if there’s any message for next year’s Assembly and local government elections. The last Stormont election saw SF gaining a third seat at the SDLP’s expense, the DUP gaining a second at the UUP’s expense, and Deeny retaining his. Now, the SDLP actually had a quota in 2007, but lost their seat due to rural fiefdom politics of the sort that’s too common in the SDLP, which led them into a lunatic strategy of having three candidates chasing what was always going to be a single seat; their transfers leaked badly, and Deeny picked up lots of transfers to put him over the line. This is an opportunity for Joe Byrne to stake his claim to being the sole (or at least lead) candidate. SF had a comfortable three quotas, and would probably need their vote to be up around the 50% mark before they think of adding a fourth candidate (though more likely as a sweeper than as a seat prospect). We also don’t know yet whether Deeny fancies running again.

On the other side of the fence, the DUP’s Tom Buchanan has been putting out leaflets informing the broad masses that in the 2009 Assembly election the DUP took 70% of the unionist vote. Well, that success is not surprising as nobody else knew there was an Assembly election in 2009. But in 2007, the DUP did indeed achieve that, and monopolised unionist representation. They achieved that by outpolling the UUP by better than two to one, and by having fairly tight vote management. But if Ross Hussey can achieve a bit of a swing back to UCUNF, he should be in with a shout next year.

West Tyrone is usually very barren territory for Alliance, who will do well not to come dead last. And there’s also the independent candidacy of Ciarán McClean, whose previous electoral outing was as a Democratic Left (remember them?) candidate in the 1996 Forum election. Ciarán has been involved a bit in Labour politics in the interim, and is running a campaign around the quarrying issue that will aim to tap into something of the Deeny vote. More realistically, there are probably a few hundred people in West Tyrone of Labour or Workers Party sympathies, who might be attracted to a left candidate, had Ciarán run as such. It would really just be a matter of putting down a marker, but I expect that’s all Ciarán will be doing in any case.

Live blogging the North Antrim debate

Bear with me, for this is the first time I’ve done this live blogging. UTV is running a live debate between the five main contenders in North Antrim, moderated by Jim Dougal.

Right, Dougal asks about Ballymena being Asbo and drug capital of north. Ian Jr mentions transient people coming to Ballymena and bringing drug problems with them. Jim Allister talks about running down of police and Ian Jr sitting on policing board, also area needs fulltime MP. Daithi McKay: majority of crime in Ballymena drug related, resources needed for area. Declan O’Loan praises police interventions with youth. Irwin Armstrong: invest in teenagers, keep them away from drugs, Asbos having no impact as no backup.

Dougal on cuts in pipeline. Ian Jr: constituency turned round in last 40 years by Papa Doc, cuts must not affect North Antrim disproportionately. McKay: not cut public sector but increase private sector, concentrate on small and medium enterprises, we achieve more outside Westminster than others in it. O’Loan: people on doorsteps telling politicians to get in and make it work, being on floor of Westminster hugely important. Armstrong: resent N Antrim being called a backwater, neither Paisley lives in constituency. Allister: rising unemployment especially in Ballymoney, need to build new employment base through encouraging small industry, Invest NI far too focused on getting in call centres rather than helping local business.

Dougal asks about bitter battle between DUP and TUV. Ian Jr tries to take moral high ground – I run on local issues and delivery for constituency, Allister spends all his time slinging mud at me and Dad. Allister: only weapon I have and need against Junior is the truth, people don’t want overbearing dynasty passing on to flawed second generation, Junior approved PSNI training Gaddafi’s militia, Junior lobbied for developers at St Andrews. Junior: Jim filled with hatred against me and Dad, can’t work with anybody. Allister: constituency needs someone who had 96% attendance record in Europe, a worker not a smart alec. Armstrong: people want to know about jobs not history, I have run businesses and know about creating jobs. O’Loan: people want to hear delivery on jobs agenda, transfer test, frontline health care and I can bring that to Westminster. McKay: we need to kickstart economy, pressure banks to lend to small businesses, lower corporation tax, take economic levers out of London and into the Assembly. McKay and O’Loan talking over each other on abstentionism.

Allister: we need end to mandatory coalition, people in despair over 11+ thanks to SF in government, will share power with anyone but SF. Ian Jr: I want to go to Westminster and be a voice over issues like pensions, not to give off about peace process. Allister: I live in North Antrim (ouch!), there is appetite for change from people who don’t want this dynasty to carry on, Big Ian wouldn’t even turn up to vote on abortion, we don’t need flawed second generation, you chuckled with terrorists in government. Armstrong: I am only candidate campaigning to be in UK government.

And, er, that’s it. Allister, as ever, snapping away like a wee terrier with a bone it won’t let go of. Junior starting out trying to do the laid-back, moral-high-ground, patronising thing that Adams does so well, but quickly getting quite snappy. You could almost feel the hatred flowing out of the screen. The other three getting their points across – I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Declan O’Loan’s waspish delivery – but strictly there for the purposes of the Representation of the People Act. The marquee clash was always Allister vs Paisley Jr, and it was just as bad-tempered as one would have hoped.

Quote of the day: West Belfast, Paris of the north

From the texts page in the Andersonstown News:

“So Paul Maskey wants to run West Belfast into a cafe culture zone like Paris? I ain’t laughed at so much inane drivel for a long time. Could you imagine all the upmarket business people and groovy hipsters coming up the Falls Road to join the pub lads, smicks and pyjama millies over a toasted wrap and expresso? I don’t know what planet you’re on, Paul, but I wish I was there with you.


Mullah Jim rallies the Prodiban troops

We’ll be back with more constituencies before you know it, but in the meantime here’s something for the viewing pleasure of those of you who don’t get Norn Iron TV. And this is why, despite the fact that I disagree with almost everything Jim Allister says, I still find him tremendous fun. You would almost think he didn’t like Peter Robinson. Don’t hold back, Jim…

Know your constituency: West Belfast

2005 result:
Adams (SF) 24,348 (70.5%)
Attwood (SDLP) 5,033 (14.6%)
Dodds (DUP) 3,652 (10.6%)
McGimpsey (UUP) 779 (2.3%)
Lowry (WP) 432 (1.3%)
Gilby (Dream Ticket) 154 (0.4%)
Kennedy (Ind) 147 (0.4%)

2010 candidates: Gerry Adams (SF), Alex Attwood (SDLP), Máire Hendron (Alliance), William Humphrey (DUP), Bill Manwaring (UCUNF)

From the predictable Mid Ulster constituency, we move to the most predictable of them all. As Horseman points out, Paddy Power is offering odds of 1/750 on Gerry being returned, and I doubt if Vladimir Putin could get shorter odds than that.

The West Belfast constituency takes in the western quarter of the Belfast City Council area, plus the Twinbrook-Poleglass area which currently falls under Lisburn council but is basically an outgrowth of west Belfast, and is due to be joined to it if the local government reorganisation ever happens. It’s by far the most Catholic constituency, with the Protestant population being confined to the tiny Suffolk enclave and a few non-contiguous bits of the Shankill bolted on the north end; it’s also by far the poorest constituency. No surprise, then, that it’s monopolised by one party.

It’s possible to exaggerate the image of West Belfast of course. Some bits of Andersonstown are quite nice, although some other bits look like Fallujah. But the gentrification that’s often spoken of has never happened – upwardly-mobile Lower Falls people have moved to Andytown, while upwardly-mobile Andytown people have moved to south Belfast. Around 70% of children – and the population is very young – are born to unmarried mothers; and if single mothers with their kids are one obviously strong demographic, spides are another. The area has serious long-term problems with unemployment, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour and teen suicide, to name a few issues.

Of course, this is Gerry’s kingdom. In 2005 he scored the highest percentage vote for any candidate in the north, and one of the highest in the House of Commons. In 2007 Sinn Féin came in at just under 70% of the poll, and managed to take five Assembly seats out of six, thanks to some spectacular vote management. There’s been speculation that Gerry might see his vote dip this time, but I can’t see it doing so significantly. The revelations about the Adams family before Christmas, and still extant questions about Gerry’s actions or lack thereof, have tarnished the personality cult a little but the effect on Gerry’s vote will be approximately zero. Likewise, the much anticipated revelations in the Dark’s book – basically, that Gerry was in the IRA after all and that he isn’t a very nice man – will have been largely discounted in advance, and really don’t tell us much except who was Ed Moloney’s source for some stories that were already in the public domain. No, the only thing that might hurt Teflon Gerry is if the punters start reading his Huck Finn-style blog, especially when he chooses to regale us with his beat poetry; realistically, apathy is his main enemy.

He’s helped by the fact that there really isn’t an opposition. Well, there’s Alex Attwood… but the SDLP has really been on its last legs here since Joe Hendron retired. One problem is that Joe pulled in a massive tactical vote from the Shankill to beat Gerry, which actually succeeded in 1992 – but go to 1997 and you can see the extent of the tactical vote. Joe pulled in 39% in the Westminster poll, with the UUP trailing on 3%; in the 1997 local elections, the SDLP scored a mere 17%, less than the combined unionist score. Since then, the party has slumped even further, and in the 2007 Stormont election was on a mere 12.2% and in serious danger of losing its Assembly seat.

Another problem is that of people. It’s not just that the SDLP voting base tends to be quite elderly; it’s not just that the party has no organisation to speak of in West Belfast; it’s also a problem of Alex Attwood not being Joe Hendron. Joe could get away with being MP for West Belfast while living in south Belfast, because Joe’s immense warmth and charm could help him get away with a lot. I think the SDLP missed a trick in not nominating Margaret Walsh, their last councillor on the Lower Falls, to replace him. Margaret would not only have been a very personable candidate, but someone who actually lived on the Falls Road. Wee Alex has never really been well liked about West Belfast, to be honest; he’s always had the air of an outsider. Some unkind souls have suggested that he’s just putting in his time in West Belfast until Alasdair McDonnell drops dead and he can have a run at South Belfast; I prefer to give Alex the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s on some weird masochistic kick. Although if his vote sinks much further, he’s toast come the Assembly election.

Candidates aside, nobody has managed to put together a narrative that might challenge Gerry. A couple of years back, Andersonstown News columnist “Squinter” took Gerry to task for his failure to deliver jobs to the area, but that quickly petered out, while the combination of the peace process grantocracy and an enormous black economy helps cushion the area’s deprivation, so the economic argument becomes one between SF’s crony capitalism and the SDLP’s capitalism under the rule of law – you can guess which is more popular. Likewise, there’s an ongoing problem with crime and anti-social behaviour, notably in Gerry’s own Ballymurphy bailiwick, but where is a populist “smash the hoods” campaign going to come from? One could see the IRSP or RSF chancing their arm with that sort of thing, but it just isn’t compatible with the SDLP’s love of all things human rights.

As it is, there’s no competition from outside the mainstream this time. There is no dissident candidate, no Workers Party candidate for the first time in living memory, no People Before Profit candidate. Alliance regularly score their lowest vote in the north in this constituency. There’s some interest on the unionist side to see whether Shankill councillor William Humphrey can sustain the DUP’s dominance in the absence of Diane Dodds MEP, or whether UCUNF candidate Bill Manwaring can pull something back for the Officials. Bill is a strong supporter of the Tory link, but it’s hard to think of a worse constituency to be a Tory candidate. Again, watch the percentages. There should be a unionist quota there for the Assembly election, though they’ve had trouble in the past with both differential turnout and vote-shredding; there’s also a school of thought in SF that wouldn’t mind the Shankill getting that Assembly seat back, at least if it takes out Attwood.

Don’t even bother putting a bet on this one. West Belfast is a one-party state, is so by popular demand, and that’s not changing any time soon.

Know your constituency: Mid Ulster

2005 results:
McGuinness (SF) 21,641 (47.6%)
McCrea (DUP) 10,665 (23.5%)
McGlone (SDLP) 7,922 (17.4%)
Armstrong (UUP) 4,853 (10.7%)
Donnelly (WP) 345 (0.8%)

2010 candidates: Ian Butler (Alliance), Ian McCrea (DUP), Martin McGuinness (SF), Walter Millar (TUV), Sandra Overend (UCUNF), Tony Quinn (SDLP)

From covering some constituencies where things are a bit up in the air, let’s take a brief look at one where the result is in no doubt whatsoever. Martin McGuinness will be re-elected at a stroll; it’ll just be a matter of watching the percentages.

The Mid Ulster constituency has been around since 1950, but its current iteration doesn’t bear a wild lot of a resemblance to the constituency won by Tom Mitchell and Bernie McAliskey in days of yore – most of it was hived off to West Tyrone in the 1995 boundary review. Currently, it comprises the local government districts of Cookstown and Magherafelt, plus the Coalisland area of Dungannon district – essentially, South Derry and East Tyrone. It’s a big sprawling area, and very rural – the nearest thing to an urban hub is Cookstown with a population of 11,000, while Magherafelt has some 8000 and Coalisland 6000. This is a constituency of villages and deep countryside.

According to the 2001 census, the sectarian breakdown in Mid Ulster was 65% Catholic, 34% Protestant and 1% “other” – something that’s reflected proportionally in the voting figures. The geographical distribution, though, is interesting, as the Patchwork – the general sectarian geography you find west of the Bann, going back to the Plantation – is especially stark here. In the deep countryside you tend to find Catholics in the highlands and Protestants in the valleys, with the implications for richer and poorer land; towns, even small towns, tend to have distinct orange and green ends; and villages are strongly identified with one side or the other. In South Derry you can have a very republican village like Draperstown, and a few miles up the road a very loyalist village like Tobermore – it’s like the interfaces in north Belfast, only in a rural setting. Such demographic change as there has been is usually a matter of the towns becoming more Catholic.

Martin McGuinness has held this seat since defeating the widely despised Rev William McCrea in 1997, and only a fool would bet against him doing it again. No unionist can win here; the SDLP has been flatlining for years; and, while there are quite a few hardline republicans in the area, the RSF candidate in the last Assembly election polled only 1%, while there’s no dissident challenger this time. Add to that a formidable Sinn Féin organisation, and this election is a wrap for Marty. But, as will be the case elsewhere, pundits will be looking at the percentages to see what they presage for next year’s Stormont election.

Firstly, there are four nationalist and two unionist seats at Stormont from Mid Ulster. The question will be how the distribution within the blocs pans out. For the last three Assembly elections Mid Ulster has returned three SF and one each for the DUP, UUP and SDLP.

The SF vote in Mid Ulster has been wavering above and below the 50% mark for some years now, while the SDLP has been hovering around 17%. Further, at the 2007 Stormont election the three SF candidates were all returned on the first count, with the marquee candidate McGuinness having a healthy surplus, but thanks to some excellent vote managing both Francie Molloy and Michelle O’Neill coming in just above the quota. That’s over three quotas with the the SDLP sitting on a quota and a bit. If the balance shifts in the SF direction, say as a knock-on effect of the Save Michelle campaign next door in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the Shinners might fancy their chances of taking a fourth and knocking out the SDLP altogether. Note also that their ticket last time was more than a little unbalanced, with no candidate from South Derry. The SDLP candidate, Cookstown councillor Tony Quinn, will just be seeking to hold his own.

On the unionist side, the DUP should be clearly in the lead, with Willie McCrea’s son, Al Murray lookalike Ian, having established a bit of a base of his own. They outpolled the UUP by nearly two to one in 2007, but poor vote management – which is to say, egotistical quota-squatting on Ian McCrea’s part – saw Stewartstown man Billy Armstrong return once more for the UUP. But that Armstrong seat looks vulnerable, and the DUP have had their eye for a while on the prize of taking Billy out. This means UCUNF candidate Sandra Overend will be fighting a rearguard action, while Ian McCrea will be hoping that troubles east of the Bann won’t impact on him.

What complicates matters is the presence of TUV candidate Walter Millar, a local farmer who scored 2.7% as a UKUP candidate in 2007 and will be hoping to do significantly better and position himself as a contender for the second unionist seat after the invulnerable Ian McCrea. Walter has had an eccentric political trajectory – as well as the UKUP, he sat for many years as a DUP rep on Cookstown council and was also at one point a member of the Ulster Independence Movement – but should not be ruled out as an under-the-radar prospect.

So, nothing really to see here in Westminster terms, as Marty is a dead cert. But, as with many other constituencies, the other side of the story is the jockeying for next year’s Stormont poll.

Update from North Antrim: You know how I mentioned that 74-year-old TUV man Willie Ross was doing a bit of silver surfing? Well, independent Lyle Cubitt, who’s running for North Antrim on a platform of being even more hardline than Jim Allister, is now online as well.

Theme tune meme

All right, time for a weekend music meme. I’ve been tagged over at AVPS in connection with this meme that’s been going around where you select a blog theme tune – something that you feel encapsulates the feel of what you’re trying to do on your blog. This is trickier than it sounds, and Dr Phil has cheated a little by picking two theme tunes. That isn’t a bad idea, all round. You see, we often think of a theme tune as being something big and bombastic, like this:

If you’re looking for anthemic, you could do a lot worse, and hey, who doesn’t like a bit of Iron Maiden now and again? But it can be a bit much, and as you know, we like to do whimsical here quite a lot. So, in the spirit of whimsy, we need an alternate late-nite theme tune, something to put a smile on your face. Thus now:

And I think that will do quite nicely. If anyone else fancies picking up the meme, do feel free.

Facepalms at the FCO

Regular readers will know that I’m something of a fan of Pope Benedict. The man wears red shoes, rehabilitated the Tridentine Mass and annoys Richard Dawkins just by getting up in the morning – what’s not to like? And you’ll also be aware that from time to time I bang on about anti-Catholicism in the broader culture. That said, though, my response to the FCO memo affair is of amusement rather than outrage.

Actually, my initial reaction was “What is Frankie Boyle doing working in the Foreign Office? Doesn’t he have a tour to do?” The most disappointing thing for me was the teenage nature of the memo, when you would expect something more sophisticated from the FCO mandarins. As satire goes, it was very much on the Viz level. Granted, the line about getting Benny to open an abortion clinic was in very poor taste. But that stuff about blessing a civil partnership, or launching papally-branded condoms? There’s little there that Kevin Smith, or the writers of Father Ted, haven’t already done and done much better.

It’s important to point out that Catholics, as a group, are rather good at self-deprecating humour. It wasn’t any Catholic figure who called for Father Ted to be banned from TV screens – it was an ageing Trot from the hilariously misnamed Irish In Britain Representation Group. If there is sensitivity sometimes veering into chippiness, it’s when there’s the suspicion – as with portrayals of the Irish, where there’s a significant overlap – that this joshing is not quite as good-natured as it portrays itself. Likewise with criticism of the Catholic Church, whether it’s over Catholic doctrine or ecclesiastical politics or the handling of the sex abuse scandal – if you read the Catholic press or Catholic blogs, all these issues are openly and furiously debated; what winds me up is the inability of wide swathes of left-liberal and secular opinion to discuss any of these issues without resorting to Gordon Riots language.

But I’m not going to go off on a rant here about left anti-Catholicism – that’s a question for another day. What Catholics ask – and not unreasonably – is “Would this sort of stuff be aimed at anyone else?” For instance, President Zuma of South Africa has recently been on a state visit to Britain. There are plenty of questions about Jacob Zuma’s political record and personal behaviour, but it’s difficult to imagine FCO officials – whose job is diplomacy, after all – writing a similar memo on the Zuma visit, replete with hilarious “black man” stereotypes. Or indeed, imagine something like this happening around Hu Jintao’s state visit. In those cases, a junior FCO official who decided this was a good opportunity to try out his Jim Davidson act would find his feet not touching the ground.

One expects, of course, those who regard themselves as terribly modern (even if their ideas are 200 years out of date) not to have a lot of understanding when it comes to an organisation that’s supposed to be all about Tradition and unchanging truths. But then, this is a problem for the FCO – the government minister in charge of Benny’s visit is Jim Murphy, on the grounds that he’s a Catholic and therefore should have some insight into such matters. If the FCO is going to farm out its brainstorming to teenagers whose only knowledge of Catholicism is some fairly flimsy reportage in the Guardian and Independent (thus the memo stressing trendy causes célèbres like the ordination of priestesses), they’ve only themselves to blame. Of course, New Labour’s established practice of urinating all over Catholic voters and then expecting (and getting) their votes may not be irrelevant.

I was very taken, by the way, with the furious reaction from Bishop Malcolm McMahon, who has accused the Foreign Office of “disrespecting” the Pope. Yes, that’s right, a bishop using “disrespect” as a verb. Booyakasha! This is interesting, because it’s a long time since I can remember +Malcy being this indignant about anything. But then, our friend in Nottingham is the bishop in charge of the “Catholic” Education Service, and must therefore have had some input into the appointment of retiring Labour MP Greg Pope as deputy head of the CES. Mr Pope’s voting record on abortion, embryo experimentation and the Ed Balls Bill may place him well within the mainstream of today’s Labour Party, but does not necessarily make him the obvious candidate for a top CES job. In fact, short of appointing Dr Death Evan Harris, it’s hard to think of a less suitable candidate. The trendy lefties in the Bishops’ Conference, not least +Malcy, have some ground to make up, and an ostentatious show of outrage on behalf of the Holy Father won’t hurt.

The funniest thing about this, though? The enumeration of “Papal Visit Stakeholders” by importance and whether they were a positive or negative influence. This in itself is not surprising, nor is is a surprise to see (for instance) the Queen and David Cameron ranked as positive influences, or to see Professor Dawkins and the loose alliance of atheist and homosexualist groups in the No Popery Coalition as negative influences. No, what grabbed my eye was that SuBo was ranked as more important than the Archbishop of Westminster. I’m sure that caused +Vincent to spit out his porridge.

More on this from Ruthie Gledhill (who finally gets it) and from Archbishop Cranmer.

You just can’t keep the Shat down

Yes, reinterpreting the power ballad for a new generation, in a way Jim Steinman could never have imagined. Why is Britain’s Got Talent never as entertaining as this?

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