Know your constituency: Strangford

2005 results:
Robinson (DUP) 20,921 (56.5%)
McGimpsey (UUP) 7,872 (21.3%)
McCarthy (Alliance) 3,332 (9.0%)
Boyle (SDLP) 2,496 (6.7%)
Dick (Cons) 1,462 (3.9%)
Kennedy (SF) 949 (2.6%)

2010 candidates: Michael Coogan (SF), Deborah Girvan (Alliance), Barbara Haig (Green), Claire Hanna (SDLP), Mike Nesbitt (UCUNF), Jim Shannon (DUP), Terry Williams (TUV)

Unusually, not a single candidate in Strangford this time around ran in the last election, though a couple of them are very familiar faces. And a seat that, until the end of last year, looked utterly predictable is suddenly in play – for this is the seat formerly held by Iris Robinson.

The core of the Strangford constituency is the Ards Borough Council area (except for Millisle and Donaghadee), with other bits bolted on at the edges – currently the Moneyreagh ward of Castlereagh and six wards of Down district around Saintfield and Ballynahinch. The latest round of boundary changes – losing a bunch of Castlereagh wards to East Belfast and South Belfast but gaining territory on the southern fringe from South Down – should theoretically make the seat slightly more nationalist, but from a very low base indeed. (The 2001 census gives community background figures of 80% Protestant, 15% Catholic and 5% “other”.)

The constituency is basically half Belfast commuter belt, half rural, with the commuter belt element increasing due to frantic property development. Generally the area is quite affluent, with the only real pocket of deprivation being the West Winds estate in Newtownards. In sectarian terms, Newtownards town has a small (less than 10%) and low-profile Catholic community, while the rural areas to the southwest (the Comber/Killinchy area) and the east (the top half of the Ards Peninsula) are almost entirely Protestant. Catholics are to be found mainly in the southern bits around Killyleagh and Ballynahinch; and, as importantly, south of the invisible line on the Ards Peninsula when you go from Portavogie (almost entirely Protestant) to Kircubbin (majority Catholic) to the 90% Catholic village of Portaferry at the bottom of the peninsula. Generally, though, this is as solid Prod country as you’ll find anywhere.

Strangford is one of those constituencies – East Derry is another – that went marginally to the DUP in 2001 after years of UUP domination, but then swung massively to the DUP afterwards. In both 2005 and 2007 it had the highest DUP share of the vote in the north; the party holds four out of six Assembly seats, and dominates local government in the area. Normally, this would be a banker for the Dupes, but that is to reckon without Iris Robinson’s spectacular fall from grace.

We don’t need to rehearse the details again, but I believe my judgement is sound that, while it was the sex scandal that grabbed headlines around the world, the aspect of the Robinson Affair that has been most damaging to the DUP is the money side. Punters in the Newtownards Chronicle were already grousing about the Swish Family Robinson, their expenses claims and their habit of employing multiple members of their family as aides. (Or even placing one of their sons on Castlereagh council, their private fiefdom for decades.) What was really toxic about the Spotlight documentary was the mentioning of the names “Fred Fraser” and “Ken Campbell” in conjunction with Mrs Robinson’s monetary affairs. Iris’ black lingerie and steamed-up car windows might be good for a bit of gossip, but there are plenty of people around Newtownards who have gripes about planning decisions and the input of the Developers’ Unionist Party into same.

So, the UUP (in its new UCUNF incarnation) needed a marquee candidate, rather than allowing the Strangford UUA to its own devices to pick some retired major, or David McNarry. Thus it was that Reg Empey managed to headhunt sometime UTV news anchor turned victims’ commissioner Mike Nesbitt (whose suspiciously youthful-looking posters are all over the area). TV Mike is obviously an articulate bloke, and he’s exactly the sort of post-UUP candidate Reg had been talking up (and which Reg conspicuously isn’t) – that is, he’s effectively running on the merits of Mike Nesbitt, with the UCUNF label really just a bit of branding.

The DUP has gone down a different road in selecting longstanding councillor and MLA Jim Shannon. Jim doesn’t look like a slick TV anchorman – he looks like a big gun-toting culchie, which, oddly enough, is exactly what he is. Apart from being a country sports enthusiast, Jim is also a fluent speaker of Prodbonics Ulster Scots, and likes to regale the Assembly with speeches in the hamely tung. Jim, conscious of the potential Nesbitt appeal to the aspirational middle classes, has been casting this as a battle of style against substance – Mike may be good in front of a TV camera, so it goes, but does he know how to fill in a DLA form? Jim surely does. Moreover, he actually lives in the constituency while Mike lives in – whisper it – East Belfast!

Ordinarily, that enormous DUP majority would be insurmountable, but as I say, we don’t know how the Robinson Affair is going to shake out. We should also mention the TUV running in this race, in the shape of Cllr Terry Williams, a defector from the DUP. There has always been a base in the rural parts of Strangford for dissident unionism, with the UKUP having previously had an Assembly seat there – and we see the talismanic figure of Cedric Wilson, who has been protesting against sell-outs and Lundyism since God was a wee lad, emerging to back Terry. He won’t win or even come close, but he could shave enough off the DUP vote to make things interesting.

Dealing with the other runners and riders, the main job here will be jockeying for seats at next year’s Assembly election. There already is an Alliance seat; boundary changes make a nationalist seat mathematically possible, and in 2007 the SDLP candidate, popular Portaferry chip shop owner Joe Boyle, was a mere 31 votes adrift of successful DUP candidate Michelle McIlveen. Alliance candidate Debbie Girvan will be seeking to maintain the vote inherited from perennial contender Kieran McCarthy. The SDLP’s Claire Hanna will be seeking to grow the vote and put herself in a strong position for Stormont. And yet, the SDLP’s time may have passed in Strangford before it even arrived. The Alliance-voting habits of Strangford Catholics have been hard to break, especially with Kircubbin man Kieran McCarthy in the frame, and word has it that tallies from the 2007 Assembly election had Alliance as top dog in Portaferry with SF in second and the popular chip shop owner trailing in third. As for Sinn Féin candidate, Ballynahinch’s Michael Coogan, his main task will be to avoid the wooden spoon, an honour he’ll probably be contesting with the Greens.

My gut prediction: you have to go with Gun Boy over TV Boy.


  1. Garibaldy said,

    April 21, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Stakanhovite behaviour tonight SS. What was the photo for this? It isn’t opening for me. I think your gut instinct is probably right here. Agree with you on South Belfast too, though I think McDonnell may shade it.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      April 21, 2010 at 10:40 pm

      Ah, just a derelict barn. So that’s five down, thirteen to go…

      • Garibaldy said,

        April 22, 2010 at 1:09 am

        So they’ll be done by the start of next week then SS?

  2. Gonzo said,

    April 22, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Always surprised by McCarthy. Everyone thought Joe would take his Assembly seat, but nope! I remember how tight it was; it was one of the last seats declared.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      April 22, 2010 at 12:53 am

      You can never write McCarthy off. It seems to be a Kircubbin thing.

  3. Peoples Republik of East Down! said,

    May 11, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Good summary of the constituency, as are the others. Not a bad shout with regards to the fall of the SDLP vote in Portaferry. Early tallies from the count had SF taking Kircubbin, Ballynahinch and Portaferry. Interesting to see how next year goes…

  4. Ards Peninsula Time For Change said,

    January 28, 2011 at 1:30 am

    East Down Shinners must multiply each vote by two doing tallies no increase on any of previous elections. Alliance vote down dramatically. SDLP vote down slightly. Tactical voting for Shannon v Nesbitt. Joe Boyle increases vote each election. 290 votes short Assembly 2003, 30 votes short Assembly 2007. Strong candidate for 2011 Assembly. Joe’s profile at all time high through work in Strangford and in particular Ards Borough / Ards Peninsula.
    Well known for delivery on issues for constituents. Will be hard to shake of in next election. An excelient chance of winning historic assembly seat for SDLP in May 2011- watch this space !!!!

  5. April 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    […] And from last year’s Westminsters, Splintered Sunrise’s profile… Tags: #str11, ae11, Constituency threads, elections Topic: Politics Region: Northern […]

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