Whoever wins North Down will depend largely on where Sylvia Hermon’s votes go. What Green, Sinn Féin and SDLP voters do will also have a bearing on the result.
After 18 years as MP the independent unionist, to some surprise, decided to call it a day when the general election was announced for December 12th.
The three main contenders seeking to fill her seat are members of the mothballed Assembly: the DUP's Alex Easton, Alan Chambers of the Ulster Unionist Party and Stephen Farry, deputy leader of Alliance. The fourth candidate is Matthew Robinson of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, which tends to poll around two to three per cent in North Down.
If Hermon were to confer her blessing on one of the three chief candidates it could influence the outcome. She is a Remainer in this constituency where 52 per cent voted to stay in the EU. She is also antipathetic to the DUP, so that would appear to rule out Easton’s chances of getting her seal of approval.
A former member of the UUP and liberal in outlook, she could be torn between Chambers and Farry. But so far she’s keeping schtum.
North Down is a rather curious constituency. It is pretty affluent and decidedly unionist. Nonetheless, its voters tend to opt for more free-thinking, slightly maverick (in unionist terms) politicians to represent them at Westminster.
With Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy, Hermon stood out as the only Northern Ireland-based MP who offered a Remain voice in the House of Commons. Before her was Robert McCartney, who also tended to plough an independent unionist furrow, and before him Jim Kilfedder – all individualistic politicians who were never comfortable following a party whip.
Hermon, widow of the late RUC chief constable John Hermon, has always been well got in North Down. She first won the seat with a 7,000 majority and up until 2015 held the seat with majorities ranging from 5,000 to 15,000.
But in 2017 Easton, in his second consecutive challenge, came within 1,200 votes of Hermon – and that was with the UUP absent from the polling paper – whereas in 2015 she was 9,000 votes ahead of him. He is a hard worker, no frills, just gets on with it. No sooner had election day been called than Easton was out with his teams erecting posters, calling on doors and working hard for votes.
Meanwhile, the UUP and Alliance were biding their time waiting to see would Hermon run again, to determine how serious a challenge they might mount. A week later she decided she wasn’t standing which brought Chambers and Farry into the race but lagging behind Easton in terms of the canvassing ground war.
At the time of the DUP manifesto launch on November 28th, Easton said he had canvassed 19,000 houses and intended to knock on a total of 30,000 doors before the campaign’s end.
The impetus now appears to be with Easton. But then again in this rather contrarian constituency where will those 16,000 Hermon votes from two years ago end up? Moreover, the Greens, Sinn Féin and the SDLP aren’t fielding candidates and they polled about 3,500 votes in 2017. So there is close to 20,000 votes a-begging that, if properly divvied out, could make life difficult for the DUP man.
For that to unfold either Chambers or Farry would need to emerge as the candidate with the sole chance of defeating him.
Here it is interesting to study the 2017 Assembly results. Easton topped the poll with 8,034 votes followed by Chambers and Farry who were neck and neck on 7,151 and 7,014 votes respectively.
Loyalist posters have appeared in Bangor warning that a vote for “the unholy Alliance” would mean a “Sinn Féin/IRA win”. That could prompt some of those aforementioned independent-minded former Hermon supporters to cast their lot in with Farry.
Farry insists he has established himself as the only rival to Easton. He said, "It is a straight fight representing the clearest Remain and Leave choices. Sylvia Hermon is a hard act to follow but I am hopefully best-placed to attract most of her previous voters. It should be very close."
The reaction from the Chambers camp was the Mandy Rice-Davies response, “Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?”. The line was that Chambers won more votes than Farry two years ago and might do so again.
Were Hermon to make an 11th-hour intervention it might change the dynamic to a degree but at the moment Easton’s hard graft, and being sharply out of the blocks, could be enough to get him first to the winning tape.
Candidates: 2019 Westminster election
Alex Easton (DUP)
Alan Chambers (UUP)
Stephen Farry (Alliance)
Matthew Robinson (Conservative)
Results: 2017 Westminster election
Sylvia Hermon (Independent unionist) 16,148
Alex Easton (DUP) 14,940
Andrew Muir (Alliance) 3.639
Steven Agnew (Green) 2,549
Frank Shivers (Conservative) 941
Therese McCartney (SF) 531
Caoimhe McNeill (SDLP) 400
Gavan Reynolds (Ind) 37
Prediction: Alex Easton (DUP)