Northern Ireland elections: Newry and Armagh constituency profile
Sinn Féin faces prospect of losing one of three strong MLAs
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy: he was formerly the MP for the constituency, having taken over from Seamus Mallon, but has returned to the Assembly
The rule of thumb for these Assembly elections is that a party with three seats in any constituency is going to lose one unless there are exceptional circumstances.
And there are none that we can see in Newry and Armagh, where Sinn Féin faces the unenviable fate of losing one of three strong MLAs. They are senior party figure Conor Murphy, the popular Keady-based Cathal Boylan, and its young junior minister Megan Fearon.
One of them is going to lose out unless Sinn Féin manages the kind of surge we usually only witness at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral.
With the reduction of the constituency from six to five seats, it’s really hard to see any of the other sitting MLAs losing out as all of them are more or less sitting on a quota.
William Irwin from the DUP topped the poll last year, and without a running mate this time should repeat the exercise. While Danny Kennedy of the UUP is five points shy of a quota on about 11 per cent, there are enough unionist transfers for this solid and popular MLA to retain his seat.
Similarly, the SDLP has pared back its ticket to a single candidate in Justin McNulty. He is an All-Ireland winning player with Armagh. Last year the SDLP won 18 per cent of the vote. It is also Seamus Mallon’s home turf. It seems a bit far-fetched for the party support to collapse to Sinn Féin, without an identifiable factor.
So that leaves Sinn Féin. Murphy was formerly the MP for the constituency, having taken over from Mallon, but has returned to the Assembly.
Ironically, he lagged behind both his colleagues last year by about 1,000 votes. That was fine when the quota was about 14 per cent. Now it is 16.66 per cent and Sinn Féin’s combined vote is less than 2.5 quotas. Without the prospect of picking up substantial transfers from elsewhere, all three candidates will have to have their noses in front of McNulty, or less conceivably Kennedy, in order to survive.
Can it be done? The party’s renowned vote-management has seen it through the gap before. But this is a tall order.
It would be a body blow for the party if Murphy were to lose his seat – such a high profile loss would result in gloating by unionist opponents. Expect the party to mount a big campaign to back him, with Boylan’s seat possibly coming under some pressure as a result.
Incidentally, the count should be relatively quick. Only nine candidates have declared in the race, six of them outgoing Assembly members. That makes a big contrast with some of the bumper derbies in other constituencies.
The mathematics are obvious and there are no extenuating circumstances. Two seats for Sinn Féin, one for the SDLP; and one each for the DUP and the UUP.