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.


  1. ejh said,

    May 1, 2010 at 8:14 am

    I might have mentioned this before, but does anyboy reading know anything about a North Down Conservative called James O’Fee? (The reason for my curiosity is that he’s one of Ray Keene’s many bagmen.)

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      May 2, 2010 at 12:10 am

      Evidently, James O’Fee is still knocking about Tory politics in North Down – he’s signed Parsley’s nomination papers.

      • ejh said,

        May 2, 2010 at 12:21 pm

        Ah, thanks. Anything known about him personally? He writes this largely unread blog, Impala being Ray’s publishing company. Normally people who work for Ray are scoundrels who will kiss arse for pennies, but he also has a line in flattering nice-but-dim posh types and I’m wondering if O’Fee perhaps comes into that category.

      • Steve said,

        May 7, 2010 at 5:37 pm

        I wonder if he could be the “Jamesie O’ Fee” who was a family friend in the 1970s – he played rugby for Bangor, I think, and taught my brothers and I how to play hexagonal chess, as well as sparking a long-lasting but intermittent interest in mathematical puzzles via books of Martin Gardner’s columns for the Scientific American. Nice, yes. Dim, not so at all….

  2. Phil said,

    May 1, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    a whopping 25% of the population in North Down were categorised as “none or not stated” under the religion question

    So that’s

    Religion: 65.8% Prod, 9.2% RC, 25% MYOB
    Religion that you were brought up in: 82.2% Prod, 11.7% RC, 6.1% DK/none/CoE

    Suggesting that around 20% of both the Catholic and the Prod population are a bit fed up with the whole two-tribes malarkey. On the other hand the votes last time stack up as

    88% Unionist, 3.7% Nationalist, 8.3% other

    which suggests that either Lady Sylvia had a big cross-community appeal or that she hoovered up every single voter apart from the Catholics, most of whom went for the Alliance so as not to frighten the neighbours.

  3. Phil said,

    May 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Sorry, obviously Sylvia Hermon didn’t get 88% in her own right. Which suggests, I should have said, either that Lady Sylvia had a big cross-community appeal or that the DUP took the hard-liners while she hoovered up all the other voters apart from the Catholics, etc.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      May 1, 2010 at 11:42 pm

      In areas where there aren’t enough Catholics to elect a nationalist, most of them will go Alliance. Unless you have somebody like Hermon who does have cross-community appeal (to the extent you can have cross-community appeal in North Down) or unless they’re voting tactically to keep the DUP out.

      From my knowledge, the Catholics in Holywood vote heavily for Alliance at local level. But quite a few would lend their votes to Sylvia. Alliance also do pull in a fair bit of the MYOB segment, plus people originating in Britain who see a liberal party and find it’s the only thing in local politics that makes sense.

  4. Ramzi Nohra said,

    May 3, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Its a pity about Parsley. He used to comment a lot on Slugger and seemed quite a reasonable guy. He was also quite into his Ulster-Scots stuff in a genuinely non-partisan way.

    Where did it all go wrong?

  5. Garibaldy said,

    May 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    My impression of Parsley from Slugger was always that he was much more unionist, and much more right-wing than the average Alliance member. So in that sense I was shocked but not surprised when he went. The shock coming from how heavily he had promoted himself as the future of Alliance. But not the first prominent Alliance person to allow their personal advancement to produce a surprise. Ask Séamus Close about Lord Alderice and the Speakership.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      May 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm

      They do have some good public representatives – I’ve always liked Kieran McCarthy for instance – but yes, look at all the superannuated Alliance people filling the quangos. Probably a consequence of the old contradiction between being a genuine liberal party and historically being the NIO’s front party.

      • Garibaldy said,

        May 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm

        Yeah, they have always had some good people. But quite a few of those have lacked staying power when compared to politicians from the other northern parties (both the Alderdices for example). Much as I find her irritating, I think Long is probably both effective and likely to stick around. As for quangoes. I guess they are very tempting, especially when there mightn’t seem to be another way of influencing the way the place is governed. There’s also an interesting story to be told about how so many CPI people ended up in them, often via the Women’s Coalition.

  6. May 10, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    […] Splinty describes Sylvia Hermon “has functioned as a de facto Labour MP” since 2005. Likewise, […]

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