Know your constituency: Lagan Valley

2005 result:
Donaldson (DUP) 23,289 (54.7%)
McCrea (UUP) 9,172 (21.5%)
Close (Alliance) 4,316 (10.1%)
Butler (SF) 3,197 (7.5%)
Lewsley (SDLP) 2,598 (6.1%)

2010 candidates: Paul Butler (SF), Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP), Keith Harbinson (TUV), Brian Heading (SDLP), Trevor Lunn (Alliance), Daphne Trimble (UCUNF)

There won’t be any surprises in terms of the result in Lagan Valley, aka the Kingdom of Jeffrey. As with several other constituencies, it’ll be a matter of watching the percentages to see what’s bubbling under the surface.

Lagan Valley is a mainly suburban constituency with rural parts located to the west and southwest of Belfast. In local government terms, it consists of most of Lisburn district (except for the nationalist estates in the east which belong to the West Belfast constituency, and Glenavy ward in the north, just transferred to South Antrim) plus the Dromore area of Banbridge district. Its hub is the large town of Lisburn, minted as a city in 2002, which is a prosperous commercial centre with a booming population. There is a complex of mostly working-class estates linking Lisburn to Belfast. Outside Lisburn you get small towns like Hillsborough (where the castle is), Moira and Lambeg, and some way further out is Dromore. Much of this is commuter belt, although Lisburn itself has enough commercial vitality to be a hub in its own right rather than a dormitory town. Indeed you find lots of (Protestant) Belfast people going to Lisburn to do their shopping. Note, however, that the Belfast accents stop at Seymour Hill, and that Lisburn people are very touchy about not being a mere suburb.

The sectarian breakdown according to the 2001 census was approximately 80% Protestant to 15% Catholic, with a fairly dramatic shift of 6% from Catholic to Protestant taking place in the boundary review, which removes the two concentrations of nationalist voters in Dunmurry/Lagmore and Glenavy. The notional result therefore strengthens the DUP, UUP and Alliance positions, with the notional votes for the nationalist candidates heading down into lost deposit territory – the transfer of Lagmore into West Belfast cuts away half of Paul Butler’s vote at a stroke. That means that nationalist candidates will have to appeal to a scattered electorate, which is however becoming more numerous by the year. Lisburn is getting a bit of west Belfast creep[1] – but, in the absence of discrete nationalist areas, the most you can really do is whack up a few posters and hope for the best.

So then, the battle is within unionism, and it’s a very unequal battle in which the personality cult of Jeffrey Donaldson looms large. In years gone by this was the constituency of veteran UUP leader Jim Molyneaux, who racked up enormous majorities in election after election. On his retirement in 1997, Old Lemonsucker handed this fiefdom on to his anointed successor Jeffrey, who quickly (this was about the time of the GFA negotiations) established himself as spokesman for the UUP’s right wing. This led to several years where Jeffrey would intrigue constantly against David Trimble, making his leader’s life impossible by calling endless meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council, but painting himself into a corner where he could command a solid 40% of the UUC but couldn’t get an actual majority and take over the party he had once seemed destined to lead.

And so it was going into the 2003 Assembly election, where in Lagan Valley the UUP slate, headed by Jeffrey, polled a hefty 46.2% to the DUP’s 20.5%. However, almost immediately after the election Jeffrey, along with his fellow factionalists Norah Beare (Lagan Valley) and Arlene Foster (Fermanagh-South Tyrone) defected to the DUP. This led to the statistically very odd result in the 2005 Westminster election where the DUP vote rose by 41.3%, the UUP vote fell by 35%, but the same man as before won the election. (In 2001 the DUP’s Edwin Poots had come in third after Alliance; such was the Donaldson factor.) This was confirmed by the DUP taking three out of six Assembly seats – effectively ratifying its two gains by defection – in 2007.

So Jeffrey was quite a major catch for the DUP. However, he hasn’t really shone much in his new party. Denied the Executive department he must have hankered for, he was appointed director of elections, the idea being that with his appeal to the traditional UUP voter base (specifically with his Orange connections, an area where the DUP was historically weak; it helped, too, that although devout he wasn’t a raving fundie), he would finally succeed in killing off the UUP and establishing the DUP as the monolithic unionist party. Unfortunately for Jeffrey, his stint as elections supremo has coincided with the rise of the TUV, while the UUP-UCUNF may not be making great strides forward but has stubbornly refused to die.

So the question will be not whether Jeffrey wins, but how much he wins by. We can certainly expect his majority to be down on last time, but his cushion is so big it won’t affect the outcome. There is uncertainty over the placement of the other candidates, and their percentages, especially as a curtain-raiser for the Assembly election.

From the UCUNF corner, anyone running against Jeffrey in the short term is on a hiding to nothing. It’s perhaps significant that rising star Basil McCrea chose to sit this one out; the candidate, instead, is Daphne Trimble, wife of David, and indeed Lord Trimble himself has been out on the stump. It’s fair to say that not much love is lost between Jeffrey and the Trimbles, but that puts them well in tune with the rump Lagan Valley UUA, who to a man regard Jeffrey as a wee rat. This makes it a grudge match in a quite literal sense, and harsh (occasionally borderline defamatory) words have been exchanged.

The TUV, meanwhile, are running that personable wee man in the orange tie who caused the DUP so much hassle in the Dromore by-election. We don’t know, as ever with TUV candidates, just how well Keith Harbinson is going to do. In the last Assembly election Bob McCartney, with no organisation behind him, got 2%, which we can take as rock bottom for dissident unionism. On the other hand, we might look at the 13.4% Edwin Poots got in 2001 as indicating a good result for someone more hardline than Jeffrey. I think – and this is a gut instinct – that Harbinson will do rather well, possibly edging up into double figures. But that’s just a stab in the dark.

Alliance usually do all right here, and Trevor Lunn is sitting on a 10% vote or thereabouts. He doesn’t really have to worry much about his Assembly seat, given Alliance’s ability to soak up transfers. Speaking of which, we should note that Jeffrey has been a very hardworking constituency MP who evidently has a big personal vote, and whose transfers in PR elections go all over the shop. Jeffrey can be relied on to outperform the DUP, and that’s why only a fool would bet against him for the moment – he’s about as safe here as Gerry is in West Belfast. If he slips badly, though, the DUP should be worried.

[1] We can be more specific here in geographic and social terms. While the old town of Lisburn remains hardcore loyalist, the private estates between Lisburn and Twinbrook are quite mixed. This is also distinct from, say, Poleglass being a massive estate full of people relocated from the Lower Falls – we’re talking about respectable people moving out of Andersonstown or Twinbrook to get away from the hoods. There’s an exact parallel with Kilcooley being an estate of Shankill people dumped on the outskirts of Bangor, and those private estates in Bangor with lots of respectable people who moved out of the Shankill or Sandy Row to get away from the hoods.

5 Comments

  1. Mark P said,

    May 6, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Another interesting contribution. Thanks for that.

    By the way, are you going to try and get the last couple done before polling opens?

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      May 6, 2010 at 12:30 am

      Well, before it closes anyway. Pity to get sixteen down and miss the last two, if only to give an idea of what to look for in the results.

  2. harry monro said,

    May 6, 2010 at 8:59 am

    thanks for this s/s, perhaps JD gives a picture of the unionist mind in general, prefering one monolithic party to preserve “their” rule. Why it has been so difficult to see any sort of reformist entity emerge among Protestants since WW2, but before the Troubles, I think is an interesting one. The NILP got nowhere really. I actually think how a mass sectarian state functions in the modern world should interest everyone, I don’t think the idea that NI was backwards looks so plausible with rise of Islamaphobia in Europe, particular in France where its so popular with the left.

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    May 6, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Yeah, can I echo that thanks, splintered. This has been a really helpful as well as entertaining and enjoyable. It’ll be very interesting to see how things work out


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