Murphy (SF) 20,965 (41.4%)
Bradley (SDLP) 12,770 (25.2%)
Berry (DUP) 9,311 (18.4%)
Kennedy (UUP) 7,025 (13.9%)
Markey (Ind) 625 (1.2%)
Here’s another constituency that’s dead easy to call. The main interest here will be how much Conor Murphy can stroll back in by, and who wins the rather even tussle between the two unionist parties.
Stereotypically, outsiders tend to identify the Newry and Armagh constituency with Newry town and the semi-independent Republic of South Armagh, what the Brits used to call “bandit country”. Although these are part of the constituency, and the core of Conor Murphy’s vote (in the 2005 local government elections SF pulled in a 76% vote share in the Slieve Gullion electoral area centred around Crossmaglen and Forkhill), the constituency is a lot bigger than that would imply, including the whole of Armagh district and the western half of Newry and Mourne district. Or, to put it another way, the whole of County Armagh except for the Craigavon conurbation, plus Newry.
Newry is freshly minted (since 2002) as a city rather than a town, but it’s a small city with only around 30,000 inhabitants. In some ways, Newry is a bit of a success story of the peace process years – it used to be a bit of a dump, and it’s still a basically working-class town with a fair amount of deprivation, but today it fairly bustles with cross-border trade. Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, has had city status much longer, but is even smaller with a population of just 15,000. Below that you’re into the villages. And not just republican villages, either – on the north-eastern side of the constituency you’ve got very very Prod villages like Richhill, Hamiltonsbawn, Markethill and of course Tandragee, home of Tayto crisps. According to the 2001 census just over two-thirds of the population was Catholic, just under one-third Protestant, and as is usually the case outside greater Belfast, these figures are mirrored almost exactly in the voting figures. These proportions are mirrored in Armagh city; Newry is over 90% Catholic, with Protestants a distinct minority even in Windsor Hill; generally, the rural sectarian divide is on a northeast versus southwest axis.
It’s strange to recall, and it seems an age ago now, that Newry and Armagh was once a unionist seat. That was between its creation in 1983, when Jim Nicholson won it for the UUP, and the 1986 by-election when Séamus Mallon took a seat he would go on to hold for the next nineteen years. For most of that time Mallon was invulnerable, though Conor Murphy gave him a scare in 2001 and then, to nobody’s surprise, took the seat on Mallon’s retirement in 2005. This was as clear an illustration as any of the problems that the SDLP’s retiring of most of their popular people – Hume, Mallon, Hendron, Rodgers – at the same time would lead to. They were all pretty much of retirement age of course, but not much thought had apparently been given to bringing up a new generation. I have a lot of time for Dominic Bradley – he’s a hardworking public representative, very much on the nationalist wing of the SDLP, one of the Assembly’s handful of fluent Gaeilgeoirí and in many ways a great candidate for this area – but, with no disrespect to Dominic, he’s not Séamus Mallon, and he’s faced the same problems as anyone trying to take over from one of the SDLP’s venerable fiefs.
The story of Newry and Armagh in the past decade or so has been one of the inexorable rise of the Sinn Féin vote, which in the past three Westminster elections has gone from 21% to 31% to 41%. In the 2007 Assembly election the breakdown was 42.1% to SF and a mere 19.8% to the SDLP (three seats to one), with a further 4.4% to independent republican Davy Hyland that would probably stretch the lead even further. Given that Murphy now has the advantage of incumbency, and a high profile as regional development minister, a further strengthening of his position would seem likely.
What will also be interesting is what we hear informally from the tallies, because the nationalist vote has a distinct geographical aspect to its breakdown. Going by the 2005 local elections, SF is totally dominant in Slieve Gullion, has a solid lead over the SDLP in Newry city and the villages immediately to the west of it such as Camlough, and a smaller but still handy lead in Armagh city, while the two parties are more or less level pegging elsewhere. Shifts there could give us a sense of what might happen in next year’s local elections.
On the unionist side, this is one place where I’d expect to see UCUNF open up a clear lead over the DUP. Their candidate, UUP deputy leader and longstanding Bessbrook representative Danny Kennedy, is very well liked locally and a strong campaigner. The DUP had a bit of a problem at the last Assembly election due to the implosion of their local wunderkind and ace vote-getter, Paul Berry, after that unfortunate sports massage incident. Berry’s replacement as MLA and Westminster candidate, Richhill councillor William Irwin, is a solid rather than exciting candidate, but then young Mr Berry proved just a bit too exciting for the DUP in Armagh.
Rounding out the candidates’ list we have Andrew Muir of Alliance (a party that rarely stands here and usually gets about 1% when it does) and mad loyalist and serial protester Willie Frazer. Willie’s previous candidacies in the area tend to net him in the region of 600 votes, so we’ve got a benchmark for him. One may also see him as a sort of ersatz TUV candidate, though he’s probably too mad for the TUV, so if he manages to significantly improve on his benchmark it might tell us something about how hardline the mood is amongst border Prods.