Newry and Armagh: SDLP and UUP target seats occupied by Sinn Féin and DUP
Conor Murphy, who has done a bit of a Lannigan’s Ball dance here, should top the poll again
The Northern Ireland Assembly election will take place on Thursday, May 5th. Each of the 18 constituencies – including Newry and Armagh – will elect six Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
On paper, there is a possibility of change in Newry and Armagh - though not in the way the seats will be divided between the two religious traditions. With over 65 per cent of the population describing themselves as Catholic, the six seats will invariably be split in a ratio of 4:2 between nationalist and unionists.
However, there is a chance of change internally between competing parties on the same side of the sectarian divide.
The SDLP harbours some hopes of wresting a seat from Sinn Féin, with two strong (albeit new) candidates in the field. And on the unionist side, the Ulster Unionist Party is running two candidates rather than one in the hope that it can take a second seat at the expense of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Conor Murphy has done a bit of a Lannigan’s Ball dance in this constituency.
He topped the poll in 2011, but then stepped out to focus on his Westminster seat. However, he did not contest last year’s British general election and in a straight swap with Mickey Brady (who was elected an MP), Murphy stepped back into the Assembly in June 2015.
His high standing and profile will ensure he tops the poll here as he did five years ago. However, the party will try to avoid him accruing too high of a vote. That could impact negatively on the ability of his two running mates to retain their seats. In 2011, Murphy had almost 20 per cent of the vote, a quota and a half. Back then, while the last candidate, Mr Brady, was never in real peril, he had only 600 votes to spare over the SDLP. That’s not a huge buffer by any means, and would have been less had the surplus of the successful SDLP candidate come into play.
Newry and Armagh factfile
How the constituency compares
Level: medium. Rank: 12 of 18
Levels of poor health
Level: medium. Rank: 7 of 18
The other Sinn Féin candidates are Cathal Boylan from Keady (elected almost a decade ago) and Megan Fearon (who became the North’s youngest MLA when she was co-opted in 2012). It is her first election and, while the party machine is strong, she just might be vulnerable.
Following the retirement of Dominic Bradley, the SDLP have two candidates with relatively high profiles, strong personalities and a good geographical balance. Given that this was Séamus Mallon’s base, the party yearns to reassert itself here against Sinn Féin.
Justin McNulty is a former All-Ireland medal winner with Armagh and put in a credible performance in last year’s Westminster elections. His running mate Karen McKevitt is from Newry and is a sitting MLA (but from the neighbouring constituency of South Down).
If it is to have any chance of ousting a Sinn Féin candidate, the party will need a slight increase in first preference votes and will also need McKevitt and McNulty to be relatively close in terms of votes. If there is an upset on the cards, it is likely to come from here.
On the Unionist side, the UUP has ambitions of prising the seat of the DUP incumbent William Irwin. The UUP’s sitting MLA Danny Kennedy garnered over 18 per cent of the vote in 2011. He is joined on the ticket by the impressive Sam Nicholson (a son of Jim Nicholson), but it is a long shot to dislodge the DUP MLA, who was close enough to a quota in 2011.
The big issues in the constituency are jobs and investment, tourism and the road network. Given its border status, fears over Brexit after the referendum later this summer has been a feature of the debate.
The battle between the SDLP and Sinn Féin could be finely balanced and might be decided by little more than a handful of votes. It might be just too much for the SDLP to upset the status quo. The DUP’s Irwin will feel his seat is under threat, but should survive.
Sinn Féin (3); SDLP (1); UUP (1); DUP (1).
Paul Berry (Ind)
Cathal Boylan (Sinn Féin)
Emmet Crossan (CISTA)
Megan Fearon (Sinn Féin)
William Irwin (DUP)
Danny Kennedy (UUP)
Alan Love (UKIP)
Martin McAllister (Ind)
Karen McKevitt (SDLP)
Justin McNulty (SDLP)
Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin)
Sam Nicholson (UUP)
Craig Weir (Alliance)
Michael Waters (Greens)