McGrady (SDLP) 21,557 (44.7%)
Ruane (SF) 12,417 (25.8%)
Wells (DUP) 8,815 (18.3%)
Nesbitt (UUP) 4,775 (9.9%)
Crozier (Alliance) 613 (1.3%)
Unless something very strange happens in Foyle, South Down is the most competitive seat between the two nationalist parties, and a tough test for new SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie. Few people expect her not to win, but she’s having to work for it.
South Down takes up the rural south-eastern corner of the north, comprising most of Down district, nearly half of Newry and Mourne district, and a slice of Banbridge district. It’s a sprawling area, and one of the most rural constituencies. The main urban centre is Downpatrick, which might have a cathedral (Church of Ireland) and a link to the eponymous saint, but whose population is still only around 10,000. The resort town of Newcastle, with its spectacular Mourne mountains setting and more pound shops than you could shake a stick at, has something over 7000. The fishing community of Kilkeel is smaller yet, and below that you’re into the villages like Ardglass, Castlewellan, Warrenpoint, Rostrevor, Crossgar, Katesbridge and Rathfriland.
The sectarian breakdown according to the 2001 census was 69.6% Catholic to 28.7% Protestant, with the latest boundary review (the border with Strangford moving a few miles south) making the constituency slightly more Catholic. There is a fairly mixed population in the north towards Ballynahinch and the west towards Banbridge; Newcastle is around 70% Catholic and Downpatrick about 90% so; Kilkeel has long been a loyalist enclave, but new housing developments make it less so.
Yet, for 37 years this was a unionist seat, with Capt Lawrence Orr taking it for the UUP when it was recreated in 1950, and holding it until 1974 when he was replaced by Enoch Powell. Enoch was a huge catch for the UUP, and their leadership were very proud to have landed him, though given the tensions he would provoke with such figures as Jim Kilfedder, Harold McCusker and John Carson, he wasn’t an unmixed blessing – nor was he universally popular even among South Down unionists. Enoch survived a whole series of tightly fought elections, made even tighter, ironically, by the boundary review he had extracted from the Callaghan government, which boosted the north from 12 seats to 17. By 1987, Enoch could hold out no longer and Eddie McGrady took the seat comfortably, soon converting it into a safe nationalist seat and specifically an SDLP fiefdom.
Now, it may seem unimaginable these days, but Eddie McGrady was once a thrusting Young Turk on our political scene. Back in the 1960s, when he was a mere councillor in Downpatrick, Eddie was an early example of a nationalist politician who broke with the sclerotic example of the old Nationalist Party, building a formidable personal machine in the town which he took with him wholesale into the newly formed SDLP in 1970. Eddie of course was a fief in a party composed of semi-autonomous fiefdoms, but Eddie’s fiefdom was unusual in that it wasn’t solely a matter of personal rule, but he also had something resembling an SDLP organisation to back him up. It didn’t get the name of the South Down and Londonderry Party for nothing.
Eddie was also an exception to the SDLP’s fatal error of retiring all their popular figures at the same time, in that he has hung on longer than the rest of the founding generation. In fact, Eddie (74) was quite recently talking about his plans to run for yet another term, until Margaret Ritchie talked him out of it. And so it is that Margaret, despite her not being a double-jobber having been an asset in her party leadership campaign, is now campaigning to be a double-jobber. She didn’t have much option in that the other dominant SDLP figure in the constituency, PJ Bradley, is 70, which may point up something of an age issue for the South Down SDLP. Taking the raw figures from 2005, Eddie has bequeathed Margaret a good solid 9000-plus majority. So what brings South Down into play?
The obvious threat is the quite sharp rise in the Sinn Féin vote in recent years. Before the ceasefire, SF used to lose their deposit in South Down, polling some votes in the rougher bits of Downpatrick and some more in Castlewellan, but little elsewhere. They had serious trouble even getting councillors elected, and didn’t even campaign in many areas where they had potential support. But that has changed quite a bit lately, with the party doubling its share of the vote in the last ten years.
Factor in here that Eddie McGrady obviously had a strong personal vote, even pulling in some support from liberal Protestants. (This is not unique to Eddie, of course. In South Belfast you’ll find quite a few unionists who, if push comes to shove, would rather be represented by Alasdair McDonnell than Jimmy Spratt.) There has also been a rather obvious tactical vote by unionists to keep Caitríona Ruane out. In the 2005 Westminster election we saw a result of
SDLP 44.7%, SF 25.8%, UUP 9.9%
but in the local government election (under PR) the same day we saw
SDLP 34.5%, SF 24.1%, UUP 15.7%
The picture is muddied slightly by the intervention of independent and Green candidates in the council election, and that Dermot Nesbitt undoubtedly lost some votes to the DUP’s Jim Wells, but the fact remains that Nesbitt’s Westminster vote was only 64% of the UUP’s council vote, and while some went to Wells, much went to McGrady.
The squeeze will probably be tougher this time. The 2007 Assembly election saw SF coming in a mere 328 votes behind the SDLP (31.4% to 30.7%), which will have concentrated minds. And, while I’m not sure Margaret Ritchie will have Eddie’s personal appeal, a hate figure will do just as well for a tactical squeeze; and unionists really can’t stand Caitríona Ruane. Unionist politicians find it hard to even say her name, just spitting out the word “Ruane” with a visible grimace. There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. Caitríona reminds me in some ways of a junior edition of Bairbre de Brún, in that she’s a southerner (not necessarily an asset in the north), has a somewhat grating, pedantic speaking style (although so does Ritchie), and further winds people up by being a fluent Gaeilgeoir and showing off her command of Irish at regular intervals (oddly, Martin McGuinness’ horrible Irish doesn’t seem to bother anyone).
Most of all, though, it has to do with the 11+. Some of this isn’t Caitríona’s fault, in that she inherited the mess from McGuinness, plus the direct rule ministers who followed him; and it’s undoubtedly the case that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the non-selective policy favoured by the nationalist parties (plus the PUP) and the pro-grammars policy of the two big unionist parties. Nonetheless, a minister with more political savvy would have gone out, campaigned for her policy, maybe tried to broker a compromise. Caitríona, though, has sailed serenely onwards, waiting for reality to catch up with her, while post-primary selection has descended into chaos, with the grammars operating a pirate 11+ exam. (Actually, two pirate exams, with the Catholic and state grammars operating in parallel.) Be that as it may, the unionist middle class is absolutely convinced that education has gone completely down the pan, and it’s all Caitríona’s fault.
So, given all that, I’m expecting a Ritchie victory, though with a lower vote than Eddie had, and heavily reliant on unionist tactical voting. (Which, as Joe Hendron can tell you, is a precarious basis for your majority. If you don’t look like you’re going to win, those tactical votes will disappear like snow off a sheugh and you definitely won’t win.) What’s interesting, though, is what all this says about the state of the SDLP, who really shouldn’t be in any trouble here.
I’ve mentioned before the problem faced by the SDLP in retiring their top tier (Hume, Mallon, Rodgers, Hendron, McGrady) in a short space of time, and how that makes them look exposed without obvious heavyweight successors. Certainly, Adams’ “check out our leadership” theme looks designed to expose what Brian Feeney (the best leader the SDLP never had, in my opinion and Brian’s) calls “weakness in depth”. If you look at the three candidates defending seats, you have Mark Durkan, who doesn’t want to be leader, Alasdair McDonnell, who the party members don’t want to be leader, and Margaret Ritchie, who got to be leader because she wasn’t McDonnell.
But a lot of this is secondary. There’s been grumbling about Margaret’s performance in the debates, but SDLP members knew her style when they elected her – the only mistake was to be over-rehearsed, when she’s always at her best when most spontaneous. SDLP members and voters also grumble about their ramshackle organisation and how most of the leadership seem to hate each other. But that’s always been the case – it’s just that it didn’t matter so much when the party was on the up. No, I think there are two interconnected problems, one sociological and one political.
One of my favourite political quotes comes from the late Gerry Fitt, circa the founding of the SDLP in 1970. Gerry, as you’ll recall, was a former docker and a Labour man by inclination. One day Gerry bumped into an old mate who asked him how he was getting on in his new party. Gerry’s immortal reply was, “I’m up to me arse in fucking teachers.” At this point in time, at the start of the Troubles, the Catholic bishops were actively encouraging professional types to get involved in politics lest the Provos or (even worse) the Sticks take the lead, and this is what shaped the core SDLP cadre. But now, with a massively expanded Catholic middle class, and a hell of a talent pool in it – some 70% of the legal profession is now Catholic – where are the new professionals showing leadership? The party doesn’t even have reliable cheerleaders in the media – Brian Feeney is effectively a Shinner these days, as is Jude Collins. Tom Kelly in the Irish News makes the odd stab, but that’s about it.
What’s perhaps a bigger problem is that the SDLP doesn’t have a post-peace process narrative, something to set itself apart from SF. What it has in the way of ideology is John Hume Thought, with its emphasis on post-nationalist European social democracy. But I don’t know what relevance post-nationalist European social democracy has to the farmer in Tyrone or the single mother in Andersonstown or even the young professional in Glengormley. But being constrained by Hume Thought means you’ve got a nationalist party that can’t use the resources of nationalism – it’s not only that the SDLP doesn’t hold an Easter commemoration, but it’s hard to even imagine them evoking the memory of, say, Collins or de Valera.
I’ve said this before, but if the SDLP came out as a Christian Democratic party – which is what most outsiders think it is anyway – with a CDU-style emphasis on family, church and nation, it would be more in tune with its actual base. It could develop a narrative of the SDLP being the party of success and SF the party of failure, with an explicit affinity with the Catholic entrepreneurial class. It could run populist campaigns around the defence of grammar schools – rather than agreeing with the thrust of the Ruane reforms but criticising her implementation of same – and the shocking level of criminality and anti-social behaviour in west Belfast. The UCUNF project shows that this sort of reorientation is always painful, but something along those lines might give the SDLP the distinct identity that it lacks these days, and thereby a sense of purpose.
I don’t know if Big Al might have done something like that had he won the leadership, but he gives some sign of actually thinking about this problem. However, the party elected the safety first candidate. Perfectly honourably, most SDLP members are very attached to their left-of-centre identity; it’s not their fault that there’s another party that can strike that pose more convincingly.
A bit of a quick tour around the other candidates. The DUP’s Jim Wells, despite losing some of his voters in Ballynahinch to Strangford, will easily come third – the DUP wasn’t far off taking both unionist Assembly seats last time, and will have their eyes on the percentage. The UUP has been in long-term decline here, and with the added pressure of the tactical squeeze, I expect John McCallister to do horribly, with many of his natural voters decamping to Margaret Ritchie. With little recent history of dissident unionism in the area, I can’t see the TUV doing much business. Finally, Alliance have a very poor track record in this area, and are likely to be beaten badly by the Greens, who polled 3.5% in the Assembly election and have two councillors in the area.
Right, that’s seventeen out of eighteen. I hope to knock out Fermanagh and South Tyrone before any actual results are in.