Paisley (DUP) 25,156 (54.8%)
McGuigan (SF) 7,191 (15.7%)
McCune (UUP) 6,637 (14.5%)
Farren (SDLP) 5,585 (12.2%)
Dunlop (Alliance) 1,357 (3.0%)
As we kick off our constituency guide for the Westminster election, there’s no better place to start than North Antrim. This used to be the most predictable of constituencies – held by Big Ian for forty years with unassailable majorities, it’s now become the site of a battle royal for the soul of rightwing unionism.
The constituency centres around the commercial hub of Ballymena, but with a very large rural component, taking in the local government districts of Ballymena and Ballymoney along with most of Moyle. It’s heavily Protestant and, within that, heavily Presbyterian with a strong fundamentalist admixture. Not surprising, then, that it should have been the base for Ballymena native Ian Paisley, whose old-time religion and assiduous work at securing help for farmers made him an unbeatable proposition.
But now the octogenarian Papa Doc is retiring, perhaps to join Eileen in the Lords, and Baby Doc – a living embodiment of the law of diminishing returns – is seeking to replace him. Sensibly, Junior has been taking Dad out on the campaign trail with him; he also has the advantage of the possibility that a lot of culchies will see the name “Ian Paisley” on the ballot paper and not bother to ask which one. However, it’s not written yet that Junior will coast into parliament, as he might have expected in time gone by.
The reason for this is the irrepressible Jim Allister, who has made North Antrim the heartland of his Prodiban insurgency. North Antrim was the core of the original DUP base; and the Traditional Unionist Voice is essentially the Continuity DUP, with less hymn-singing and shorn of the Paisley personality cult. Several local DUP councillors have defected; and TUV tallymen reckoned that in the European election Allister outpolled the DUP in North Antrim. Furthermore, Allister is what’s euphemistically called a “formidable campaigner” – which is to say he’s clever, ruthless and knows where the DUP’s bodies are buried – and clearly fancies his chances against the hapless and gaffe-prone Baby Doc. And he has a message that will resonate with traditional DUP supporters who reacted strongly against power-sharing with the rebels, and are further pissed off by issues ranging from DUP-linked property developers riding roughshod over residents to DUP ministers signing cheques for gay organisations.
Still, you would have to make Junior the favourite, both because of inertia and because the historic DUP vote is so massive. Sunny Jim, though, will put up a stiff fight, quite possibly running him close. Another thing to watch is the UCUNF vote – the old UUP vote in the constituency has declined quite sharply in recent years, and new Tory contender Irwin Armstrong might be vulnerable to a squeeze – even from traditional UUP voters who fancy giving the Paisleys a bloody nose after years of humiliation.
The other thing to watch, as usual in our federal elections, is the intra-nationalist battle. Traditionally, Catholics in North Antrim kept a very low profile, and voted overwhelmingly for the SDLP. Sinn Féin candidates never did much business, but at the 2005 election Dunloy man Philip McGuigan managed to squeeze ahead of the veteran Seán Farren. Demographics is a factor, as is the continued sectarian polarisation in certain villages in the constituency. The two sitting MLAs, long-standing SDLP man Declan O’Loan on the one hand, SF’s youthful Rasharkin native Daithí McKay on the other, are not unattractive candidates in their different ways; but Daithí maintaining or extending the SF advantage would be my bet. This comes into play for next year’s Stormont election, where boundary changes (the loss of a few Glens wards to East Antrim) put a question mark over the second nationalist seat, which is why Declan O’Loan will be fighting hard.
But for North Antrim in general, watch Allister. The TUV’s effect in most other areas it’s contesting will be to slice off some of the DUP vote, to the possible advantage of some other party; in North Antrim, Allister is indisputably a contender in his own right. And he may have a Dad’s Army party with a lack of credible candidates, but then so did Big Ian back in the day.
Rud eile: Just heard earlier this evening that the incomparable Madam Miaow is shortlisted for the blogging section of the Orwell Prize. Congratulations are in order. Update: and congrats also to Penny Red – two lefty women in the final six is going some. Maith sibh!