South Down: High-profile unionist politicians facing tough fight

UUP may lose out to former member John McCallister, while DUP’s Jim Wells may hold on

The future of two of Northern Ireland’s best known unionist politicians will be the focus of the Assembly election in South Down – a sprawling rural and coastal constituency, where tourism, agriculture and fishing are important industries.

Former Stormont Health Minister Jim Wells, of the DUP, has had a difficult year. He was under huge personal strain after his wife Grace was taken seriously ill and he stepped down from his ministerial position last year following two controversial incidents.

Mr Wells faced intense criticism after a video emerged from a hustings event in Downpatrick where it was claimed he had suggested children brought up by same-sex couples were at more risk of abuse.

He apologised in the immediate aftermath of the furore, but later insisted his comments had been taken out of context and the video clip that appeared online had been edited in a way that cast him in bad light.


Then, just days after the hustings controversy, Mr Wells was involved in a doorstep confrontation with a same-sex couple while out canvassing in the constituency. The verbal altercation led to the DUP stalwart resigning as minister.

Undeterred by the drama of the last 12 months or so, the animated, evangelical Christian, socially conservative, vegan politician is again out canvassing for votes, so it will be interesting to see if the incidents have any impact on polling day.

In 2011, he came in third on the poll – behind SDLP's Margaret Ritchie and Sinn Féin's Caitriona Ruane – with 5,200 votes.

The other unionist under pressure is independent candidate John McCallister, who was elected in 2007 and again in 2011 for the Ulster Unionist Party.

He and UUP colleague Basil McCrea jumped ship three years ago and set up NI21, which turned out to be a disastrous political project. Mr McCallister had a spectacular falling out with Mr McCrea, quit as deputy leader of NI21, and is no longer personal friends with his old colleague.

Mr McCallister is one of the more liberal unionists at Stormont.

He believes in marriage equality for same-sex couples and recently provided his nationalist colleagues with crucial cross-community support for an Easter Rising commemoration at Stormont.

He has a strong personal vote, so is hopeful of being returned to his seat on the hill as an independent, while the UUP is hoping its councillor, Harold McKee, will take the seat.

Others vying for unionist votes are Traditional Unionist Voice candidate Henry Reilly and Ukip candidate Alan Love.

Mr Reilly is a big personality, known for controversial opinions and is popular in his home area of Kilkeel. He believes he has a real chance of a seat for the TUV. He polled more than 3,000 votes in the Westminster election in South Down last year when he stood for his previous party, Ukip.

While he may not be able to muster sufficient support in South Down to take a seat his transfers could help anoint Mr McCallister or Mr McKee.


The outgoing MLAs are the SDLP's Karen McKevitt and Seán Rogers – who replaced former party leader Margaret Ritchie MP – Caitríona Ruane and Chris Hazzard of Sinn Féin, Jim Wells of the DUP and independent John McCallister, who had been elected as an Ulster Unionist.

The DUP’s Jim Wells is likely to weather the storm and be returned, and John McCallister has a bigger profile than his UUP rival Harold McKee so could be safe too.

The result could be:

SDLP (2); Sinn Féin (2); DUP (1); Ind (1).

Sinead Bradley (SDLP)
Patrick Brown (Alliance)
Michael Gray-Sloan (Sinn Féin)
John Hardy (Greens)
Chris Hazzard (Sinn Féin)
John McCallister (Ind)
Colin McGrath (SDLP)
Harold McKee (UUP)
Henry Reilly (TUV)
Seán Rogers (SDLP)
Caitríona Ruane (Sinn Féin)
Jim Wells (DUP)