East Antrim: Sinn Féin’s McMullan is under pressure
Proven survivor will need SDLP transfers to win in predominantly unionist constituency
Oliver McMulllan of Sinn Féin: different brands of unionists want to uproot him. Photograph: Facebook
Sinn Féin is famous for playing the long game, growing slowly and, when it finally achieves its goal, laying down deep roots.
That has been the way with the party’s flag-bearer in East Antrim, Oliver McMullan, a former independent councillor who joined Sinn Féin in 2003.
He won 768 votes in this predominantly unionist constituency in that year’s Assembly elections. Four years later he had beefed up that vote by an extra 400 first preferences but still far short of enough votes to enter Stormont.
Dogged and undaunted, 64-year-old Mr McMullan tried once again in 2011 and that time snuck in with 2,369 votes at the expense of the Ulster Unionists who lost one of their two seats.
Last May Mr McMullan, who in the meantime had overcome prostate cancer, ran again – and again by a narrow margin was returned.
He is a survivor but this time Mr McMullan once again is under pressure from different brands of unionism seeking to uproot him from this constituency, which takes in towns such as Larne, Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey and Jordanstown, and a few of the Glens of Antrim – Glenaan, Glenariff, and Glendun.
His closest challenger last May was Brexiteer Noel Jordan of the UK Independence Party who is standing again. Mr Jordan nearly caused one of the surprises of the election but in the end Mr McMullan prevailed.
Mr McMullan’s problem is that this is an overwhelmingly unionist constituency. In the last election unionist candidates took 70 per cent of the vote which amounts to 4.2 quotas in this five-seat constituency.
To get in he will badly need transfers. They must come from SDLP candidate Margaret McKillop, the only other nationalist runner in the field, who last May won 1,229 votes.
Last May Alliance’s two candidates won 4,747 votes between them which was sufficient to ensure Stewart Dickson was returned. If the second preferences of Danny Donnelly, who again is Mr Dickson’s running mate, transfer in a disciplined fashion that should see Mr Dickson safely home.
And then there is the contest between the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party. The DUP is seeking to hold its three seats, those of outgoing MLAs David Hilditch and Gordon Lyons, and new candidate Stephen Ross.
Roy Beggs, whose late father, Roy senior, was MP here for many years, is standing again with his running mate, John Stewart, who also ran last year. Last May they won 1.2 quotas between them and Beggs seems sure to be returned.
The question, though, is will the continuing fallout from the “cash for ash” fiasco so undermine the DUP vote in East Antrim that enough votes will leach from the DUP to bring in both Mr Beggs and Mr Stewart for the UUP. As in many unionist-dominated constituencies that is the great imponderable – how will the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme affect the unionist mindset?
UKIP’s Noel Jordan came very close last May and again is in with a decent shout. The Ulster Unionists are pitching to take a second seat and are hoping all the furore over the Renewable Heat Incentive will damage the DUP’s prospects. It is a big test for the DUP to hold its three seats. Mr McMullan on just half a quota of votes from last May would seem quite vulnerable notwithstanding his ability to dig in, in tight contests. It could end up: DUP, 3, UUP, 1, Alliance, 1.
DUP – David Hilditch, Gordon Lyons, Stephen Ross
Ulster Unionist Party – Roy Beggs, John Stewart
Sinn Fein – Oliver McMullan
Alliance – Stewart Dickson, Danny Donnelly
UK Independence Party – Noel Jordan
Traditional Unionist Voice – Ruth Wilson
SDLP – Margaret McKillop
Conservative – Alan Dunlop
Greens – Dawn Patterson
Cross Community Labour Alternative – Conor Sheridan
Independent – Ricky Best