South Down constituency profile: SDLP face survival challenge

UK elections present opportunity for Sinn Féin as Margaret Ritchie looks to unionists

 Former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie: the political landscape in South Down is much changed since  the 2015 Westminster  election – Sinn Féin made considerable gains in the constituency in March’s Assembly election. Photograph: Eric Luke

Former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie: the political landscape in South Down is much changed since the 2015 Westminster election – Sinn Féin made considerable gains in the constituency in March’s Assembly election. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

This is a big election for the SDLP.

While the DUP and Sinn Féin slug it out over who will be the driving force in Northern Ireland politics, for the party of Gerry Fitt, Seamus Mallon and John Hume, this is about Westminster survival.

The SDLP held three seats in the outgoing House of Commons – Foyle, South Belfast and South Down – and is facing serious tests in all of them, and none more challenging than in the South Down.

Former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has been the MP here since 2010. In the last UK election in 2015, she handily saw off the main challenge from Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard by a majority of nearly 6,000 votes. But Sinn Féin’s surge in the Northern Assembly election this March radically altered the political landscape, with the party’s candidates ending up 6,650 votes ahead of the SDLP.

The inclination of unionists to vote tactically to stop Sinn Féin has assisted Ritchie, just as such votes assisted her predecessor, the late Eddie McGrady. But it will require a lot of tactical- and SDLP-voting to haul back the current Sinn Féin advantage.

This, therefore, is a time of opportunity for Sinn Féin and a taxing time for Ritchie and the SDLP.

Shortly after British prime minister Theresa May called the snap election, Ritchie and Hazzard were out tramping the Mourne highlands, lowlands and coastal roads of this beautiful constituency campaigning for every last vote.

Hazzard (32), a politics and international relations graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, is one of the new generation of Sinn Féin politicians, fast-tracked by Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness. He was co-opted to the Assembly five years ago and easily returned in both Assembly elections he has contested.

He was minister for infrastructure in the short-lived Northern Executive that folded over the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme controversy.

‘Quietly confident’

He says he is “quietly confident” that he can maintain Sinn Féin’s forward thrust in South Down. “We are hearing the rights things on the door. I am not hearing anything to say that a significant amount of our vote is somehow going to fall away,” he adds.

Ritchie, in seeking to counter the challenge, places emphasis on how Sinn Féin won’t take its seats in the House of Commons.

And while Hazzard insists his party’s abstentionist policy is not an issue “on the ground”, his SDLP rival says that making “our case” on matters such as Brexit, the economy, health and education on the floor of the UK parliament is important.

“That’s what politics is about; using your leverage at Westminster because decision-making always comes back to the House of Commons,” she adds.

Ritchie knows that she is in a “tough” contest but believes that the base that she and Eddie McGrady built up since the SDLP first won the seat from Enoch Powell 30 years ago will keep faith with her. She believes too that her outreach to unionism – in 2010 she was the first Northern nationalist leader to wear a Remembrance Day poppy – will also stand to her.

And that’s the critical question: will enough unionists vote for Ritchie to keep Sinn Féin out? Former Ulster Unionist and NI21 MLA for South Down John McCallister thinks it will be an “incredibly close” election. But he gives the slightest of edges to the SDLP candidate.

He suspects that just about enough unionist and Alliance voters will temporarily switch allegiance to maintain the status quo.

Candidates:

SDLP – Margaret Ritchie

Sinn Féin – Chris Hazzard

DUP – Diane Forsythe

UUP – Harold McKee

Alliance – Andrew McMurray.

Prediction:

Margaret Ritchie, SDLP