Strangford: Jonathan Bell up against his old DUP colleagues
UUP likely to lose out as constituency is reduced from six to five seats
Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell is standing for re-election as an independent unionist. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The former DUP trade and investment minister is standing for re-election as an independent unionist, after a bust-up with the party he has been a member of since he quit the UUP more than 16 years ago.
Last December, Mr Bell broke party ranks to allege leader Arlene Foster ordered the postponement of the closure of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which offered farmers and other businesses £1.60 return for every £1 spent on burning wood pellets, in what is now known as the “cash for ash” scandal.
Mr Bell has been suspended from the DUP and the only old party colleague to raise their head above the parapet to “100 per cent support” him in the election is DUP Cllr Pamela Barr, who happens to be his sister-in-law.
Mr Bell says he was motivated to come forward with allegations of wrongdoing by his old party after God spoke to him, and was also thinking of advice the late Rev Dr Ian Paisley gave him that you must “tell the truth should the heavens fall on you”.
Last year, the result in Strangford, a largely affluent and unionist-dominated constituency of Co Down, was DUP three, UUP two and one Alliance, – and candidates will again look for votes in places such as Ballynahinch, Comber, Newtownards and Portaferry.
Seat numbers dropping
Four DUP candidates stood last year, but, this year, with seat numbers dropping from six to five, the party is only running three, its outgoing ministers Simon Hamilton, Michelle McIlveen and Peter Weir.
The party has conceded a seat in North Down and is only running two candidates there, so Mr Weir has been swapped to Strangford to fill Mr Bell’s seat.
Last time out, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and the DUP’s Ms McIlveen were both elected on the first count, the only two above quota. Mr Bell and Mr Hamilton filled the next two seats, with Alliance’s Kellie Armstrong taking the fifth and Mr Nesbitt’s running-mate Philip Smyth squeaking the sixth seat.
Mr Smyth is the likely victim in this year’s election as there has been an Alliance seat in Strangford since 1998 and Ms Armstrong will benefit from SDLP and UUP transfers, and so should be safe.
Strangford has never elected a nationalist MLA. If politics was not such a ruthless business you would imagine everyone would be rooting for Cllr Joe Boyle.
The SDLP “nearly man” has stood on four previous occasions so he will be hoping after March 2nd it is a case of ‘fifth time’s a charm’.
Like Mr Bell, if he got across the line it would be fair to include his victory among the biggest stories of the election.
Prediction: Instead of running four candidates like last year, the DUP is fielding three and will throw the kitchen sink at Strangford to hold them. The Alliance seat looks safe and the UUP took the vulnerable sixth seat last time so is in the least favourable starting position and seems the likely losers this time out.
The result could be: DUP 3; UUP 1; Alliance 1.
Simon Hamilton, Michelle McIlveen, Peter Weir (DUP)
Mike Nesbitt, Philip Smith (UUP)
Kellie Armstrong (Alliance)
Joe Boyle (SDLP)
Stephen Cooper (TUV)
Scott Benton (Cons)
Jonathan Bell (Ind)
Jimmy Menagh (Ind)
Ricky Bamford (Green)
Dermot Kennedy (SF)