McCrea (DUP) 14,507 (38.2%)
Burnside (UUP) 11,059 (29.1%)
McClelland (SDLP) 4,706 (12.4%)
Cushinan (SF) 4,407 (11.6%)
Ford (Alliance) 3,278 (8.6%)
It’s all to play for in unionism’s tightest contest. And, with Reg Empey having put his leadership on the line, South Antrim will determine whether or not the UCUNF project has any life in it.
In geographical terms, South Antrim is a bit like Strangford in that, while it’s got a strong rural element, it isn’t nearly as rural as everyone thinks it is. Most people’s idea of the area comes from driving up by Templepatrick and Aldergrove to the International Airport, which is bang in the middle of nowhere. Yet, over 40% of the constituency’s population isn’t in the Antrim local government district – which does indeed tend to the rural – but in Newtownabbey. Yes, that includes the more rural bit of Newtownabbey around Ballyclare, but also quite a tranche of north Belfast suburbia. People are always surprised to realise, for instance, that the New Mossley estate is in South Antrim, so loudly does the estate scream North Belfast.
Antrim town itself is a smallish working-class town with a bit of a tradition of light industry, though as in other areas that’s been changing as the north moves towards a call centre economy. There are bits of Antrim that are quite down-at-heel and are known for having a drug problem, although you have to factor in a lot of community work that’s gone towards turning that around. As for the villages in the Antrim district, quite a few still have the village feel – I’m thinking, for instance, of Toome in the far west of the constituency, which is spiritually part of South Derry – whilst others are being drawn into the greater Belfast commuter belt. A canonical example is Crumlin, which is full of young Catholic families who’ve moved out of Belfast. In one or two villages, this outmigration has led to low-level sectarian tensions.
The 2001 census gives the constituency (on its new boundaries) as being 67.6% Protestant to 28.1% Catholic. The new boundary revision, which sees South Antrim lose Glengormley to North Belfast but gain Glenavy from Lagan Valley, theoretically makes it 2.3% more Protestant than it used to be, but outmigration from Belfast and especially the rapid demographic shift in the Crumlin-Randalstown area probably cancels that out. But yes, this is basically a unionist seat. The only question is, which unionist party holds it.
In days of yore, South Antrim was the definitive UUP heartland. The bloated pre-1983 South Antrim constituency was long represented by Jim Molyneaux, who at one point had the largest personal vote in the House of Commons. In the 1983 revision, Jim opted for Lagan Valley, while South Antrim fell to Clifford Forsythe. Clifford was, it’s fair to say, one of the silent unionists, an MP who you often forgot about. Yet he kept being returned with thumping majorities, helped along by the DUP not standing against him. Though it’s fair to say that the UUP in the area had some strength of its own – for a long time it held an absolute majority on Antrim council, which is no mean feat under a PR system.
In this century, however, South Antrim has been very keenly fought, beginning with the September 2000 by-election that was called after the death of Clifford Forsythe. In an early test of post-GFA opinion, the DUP fancied a go, and as luck would have it, they had an ex-MP going spare in the form of gospel-singing Free Presbyterian cleric Willie McCrea, who had been ousted from Mid Ulster by Martin McGuinness in 1997 and didn’t look like winning his old fiefdom back. McCrea beat the UUP’s David Burnside by a majority of just 822.
And so it was that South Antrim came to resemble an electoral yo-yo. In the 2001 Westminster election the by-election result was almost exactly reversed, with Burnside scoring a majority of just over a thousand; in the 2003 Assembly election the DUP nosed ahead by 298; then McCrea bounced back in 2005 with a 3,448 majority. The new DUP-friendly boundaries increase his notional majority to 4000, but this is still the DUP’s most vulnerable seat, not least because of McCrea’s polarising character. So it’s in South Antrim that the UCUNF boondoggle needs a victory if it’s going to prove it has some legs.
But of course, you’re then reliant on the UUP not making a complete balls of things. In the 2007 Assembly election the party slumped to barely 20%, and a completely disorganised campaign, which saw three poorly balanced candidates chasing one-and-a-half quotas, lost them one of their two seats to the benefit of Sinn Féin. As we’ve recounted here, the local UUP’s overwhelming choice for the Westminster election was popular Antrim mayor Adrian Watson, who might have stood a good chance as a UUP candidate but was vetoed by the UUP’s Tory partners. Watson’s problem was that he is a bed and breakfast proprietor who several years ago made some incautious remarks on Stephen Nolan’s radio show about his reluctance to have homosexual rumpo on the premises; and, as we know, Team Cameron are deeply sensitive about that issue. And so it was that, just before the election, UCUNF was left bereft of a candidate, and Reggie himself had to step into the breach.
Can Reggie pull it off? It’s not impossible – he’s not a bad stump candidate, as his 2005 performance against Peter Robinson showed. On the other hand, the big complaint about Singing Willie in South Antrim is that you can’t dig him out of Magherafelt and get him to actually set foot in the constituency. Will running a blow-in from East Belfast neuter that argument? It would certainly have been impossible for Reggie if Adrian Watson had run as an independent, but Mr Watson seems to have been mollified.
There are a number of other factors. One that might work against Reggie is the popular reaction against Cameron’s pledge to slash the public sector here – South Antrim, like most areas of the north, has lots of public sector workers and they do tend to vote. A further complication is that Burnside used to pull in something of a tactical vote from Catholics in the area to keep out the hated McCrea – that might still be operative, in that Willie hasn’t become cuddly and non-sectarian in the interim, but the Orange Pact in Fermanagh makes an appeal for tactical votes more difficult.
The other factor here is Cllr Mel Lucas contesting on behalf of the TUV. One might have though Willie McCrea was sufficiently extreme a DUP rep to be bulletproof on his right flank, but the nature of unionist discourse is such that there will always be someone willing to say “Singing Willie, you’re a Lundy.” In this instance it’s Mel Lucas, a Wee Free himself who knows exactly what language to deploy. As is the case elsewhere, we don’t know how many votes the TUV will get. In the last Assembly election, Bob McCartney for the UKUP pulled in 2.3% (while Lucas, then a DUP candidate, got 7.4%), so the McCartney score can be taken as a sort of ballpark minimum for dissident unionism in the area. What we can say with confidence is that any votes Lucas takes will come directly off McCrea.
As for the nationalist candidates, Sinn Féin has long underperformed its potential in South Antrim, mostly due to poor organisation and infighting. Pre-ceasefire, Henry Cushinan used to stand in every election and would regularly lose his deposit, getting a substantial vote from the strongly republican village of Toome, a few from Randalstown and very little elsewhere. There were some well-advertised problems with SF’s Antrim town cumann several years back when some founding members resigned – largely, as far as I could see, over personality clashes – amid claims that the late Martin Meehan had brought a bunch of heavies up from Belfast to take over. As a result, the SDLP was in the lead here as recently as 2005, but then Mitchel McLaughlin, having failed to oust Mark Durkan in Foyle, was sent down to South Antrim to break new ground and seems to have succeeded, topping the 2007 Assembly poll with 16.5%. He’ll want to build on that, while the SDLP’s novice candidate Michelle Byrne will be looking to stay up in double figures at least, if not close the gap on McLaughlin.
This is also the stomping ground of Alliance leader David Ford, and the party tends to do quite well here, pulling in 13.1% in the Stormont election. Cllr Alan Lawther would be delighted to get the same sort of vote Fordy pulls in, but he may be vulnerable to a tactical squeeze from Reg Empey. Likewise, any nationalist tactical votes for Reg will come off the SDLP pile rather than the SF one.