Wilson (DUP) 15,766 (49.6%)
Beggs (UUP) 8,462 (26.6%)
Neeson (Alliance) 4,869 (15.3%)
O’Connor (SDLP) 1,695 (5.3%)
McKeown (SF) 828 (2.6%)
Kerr (Dream Ticket) 147 (0.5%)
East Antrim is one of those constituencies that leaves me scratching my head a little, mainly in trying to figure out how someone as terminally lacking in gravitas as Sammy Wilson got elected in the first place. Still, the result should not be in much doubt.
The constituency is basically a long narrow coastal strip extending from the north Belfast suburbs to the Glens of Antrim. It takes in the entirety of the Larne and Carrickfergus local government districts, plus a bit of Newtownabbey district around Whiteabbey and Jordanstown; in the most recent boundary review, due to the radial expansion of the Belfast constituencies, it’s lost the Newtownabbey ward of Cloughfern to North Belfast, but been compensated with the three Moyle wards of Glenaan, Glenariff and Glendun (including the villages of Cushendall and Cushendun) from North Antrim.
East Antrim is socially and geographically quite diverse. At the southern end of the constituency you have a mix of rather nice Belfast suburbs with some more down-at-heel areas like the Greenisland estate. Moving to Carrickfergus, you’re in the commuter belt, with the same sort of social mix, some quite well-off areas and also some pretty run-down estates full of mad loyalists. Having a nice geographical situation, with good transport links and a scenic location on Belfast Lough, not to mention the famous castle, Carrick is one place that should really be a tourist draw but has never quite managed it. Past Carrick, you get into a rural, Ulster Scots kind of constituency, interrupted only by the ferry terminal town of Larne, and very rural indeed when you get to the north of Larne.
The constituency is strongly Protestant, and large parts of it almost entirely Protestant. There are commuter-belt Catholics at the far southern Whiteabbey-Jordanstown end; there is a substantial Catholic minority in Larne town, which outsiders often find surprising, but bear in mind the Ulster proverb about something being lower than the head of a Larne Catholic; and there’s an increasingly Catholic population in the rural areas as you go north along the Coast Road to Glenarm and Carnlough, to the almost exclusively Catholic Glens. Otherwise, East Antrim is very very Protestant.
The story of this constituency is as much one of tussles within the DUP as between the DUP and the UUP. East Antrim was hived off from Ian Paisley’s North Antrim in 1983, when the UUP took the seat with a majority of only 367 (or 1%) over the DUP. The victorious UUP candidate was Roy Beggs, a defector from the DUP to the UUP; the DUP candidate who came so close then was one Jim Allister, who of course has parted company with the DUP more recently. Beggs proved a very stickable MP and held the seat for 22 years, despite the DUP throwing Nigel Dodds at him in 1992. But in 2001 his majority over Sammy Wilson was a mere 128; and in 2005, Sammy streaked to victory with a very substantial majority.
Could Sammy be vulnerable this time? He was so far ahead in 2005 that it’s hard to see him actually being unseated, and the DUP’s 45.5% in East Antrim at the 2007 Assembly election underlines that. The boundary review weakens the DUP position somewhat, but luckily for Sammy doesn’t strengthen anyone who might be a threat to him, with the UUP and Alliance also losing votes in Cloughfern, while the Glens wards boost the nationalist parties from an extremely low base. But the scrap within unionism will be worth watching for the percentages, and as a curtain-raiser for next year’s Assembly election.
The UCUNF candidate is barrister Rodney McCune, a former parliamentary aide to the Rev Martin Smyth who stood (not very successfully) as UUP candidate in North Antrim in 2005. If he can hold the vote that the locally rooted Roy Beggs managed in 2005, he’ll be doing all right; any more and he should be very happy, as it should set the UUP fair to hold their two Assembly seats. The wild card, though, is the entry of the TUV here. One might have assumed they would be running Jack McKee, a former MLA who has sat on Larne council since the Cretaceous era and who, over the years, has been in and out of the DUP like a man stuck in a revolving door. His most recent resignation from the party was in 2007, though his brother Bobby, also a Larne councillor, remained loyal to Papa Doc. However, the TUV have opted for youth with the candidacy of party press officer Sammy Morrison, who may give an address in far-distant Fermanagh and South Tyrone on his nomination papers, but who has thrown himself into the campaign with gusto. There is clearly potential here for dissident unionism and indeed, the local TUV has even got itself a poster girl:
That would be lovely Larne native Claire Dickinson, 26, who’s added a bit of glamour to a party that isn’t generally a feast for the eyes. The TUV is not going to win here, but could pull in a respectable enough performance to line it up for an Assembly seat next year. Certainly, Sammy Morrison has been making a lot of noise locally and hopes to direct a well-aimed blow at the DUP’s naked underbelly.
None of this, however, will end the Westminster tenure of our multiple-jobbing, shoot-from-the-lip finance minister. Sammy Wilson may be, in political terms, a grenade waiting to go off, but his eventual downfall will probably be his own doing; for the moment, he has a big enough cushion of votes to withstand challenges from the outside.
As for the other parties, they aren’t here to make up the numbers either. East Antrim traditionally provides a very strong Alliance vote, especially around Carrick, and Stakhanovite party officer Gerry Lynch will be well aware that Seán Neeson leaves some very big shoes for him to step into. Meanwhile, the boundary review makes things interesting on the nationalist side, given that there should now be a nationalist quota for Stormont. Back in 1998, the SDLP’s Danny O’Connor fluked an Assembly seat with less than half a quota of first preferences but some friendly transfers, an event that precipitated a mini-pogrom in Larne; he lost his seat in 2003 and hasn’t come close to winning it back. But those three Glens wards tip the balance a bit, especially with Sinn Féin running veteran Cushendall councillor Oliver McMullan, who should poll strongly there. Note, however, that the two parties are quite closely matched if you take the Glens into account. That nationalist seat is only likely to materialise if the SF candidate is eliminated before the SDLP one – SF voters in East Antrim transfer heavily to the SDLP, the opposite is not the case. Dunloy man Justin McCamphill, fighting for the SDLP, will want that lead dearly.
Once again, then, it’s a matter of watching the percentages. This election may be no change in terms of the victors, but there’s an awful lot bubbling below the surface.