Upper Bann: SDLP’s Dolores Kelly back in the game

SF gained second seat in constituency last year at expense of SDLP, which was a big blow

Dolores Kelly and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood  at the Oxford Island Nature Centre in Lurgan for the launch of the party’s Northern Ireland election campaign on Monday. File photograph: Getty Images

Dolores Kelly and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood at the Oxford Island Nature Centre in Lurgan for the launch of the party’s Northern Ireland election campaign on Monday. File photograph: Getty Images

 

SDLP stalwart Dolores Kelly is back in the electoral game in Upper Bann. The former deputy leader is seeking re-election after last year losing the seat she held as of 2003 to Sinn Féin.

It was no coincidence that SDLP leader Colum Eastwood chose the Oxford Island Nature Centre in Lurgan for the launch of the party’s Northern Ireland election campaign on Monday.

SDLP had held a seat here from 1998, and recognises Upper Bann as a constituency where it has the potential to make a gain.

Mr Eastwood said the “distinctive and definite voice” of Ms Kelly had been missing from Upper Bann over the last nine months, and that she was ready for the fight. “Upper Bann has missed that voice,” he said. “It’s time to bring it back.”

Upper Bann has a strong manufacturing sector and, as well as the nature reserve tourist attraction, is home to Lough Neagh.

Worst violence

The main towns in the constituency, which saw some of the worst violence during more than 30 years of conflict in the North, are Lurgan, Craigavon and Portadown.

In 2016 Sinn Féin gained a second seat at the expense of the SDLP, which was a big blow for the party. But Catherine Seeley, previously regarded as a rising star of Sinn Féin, has announced she is returning to teaching, as it is understood she did not particularly enjoy life “on the hill” at Stormont.

It will be Nuala Toman joining Brexit spokesman and former education minister John O’Dowd on the ballot paper. Ms Toman is a long time Sinn Féin activist and has worked for party president Gerry Adams for many years.

Mr O’Dowd took the sixth and final seat in 2016 - just 168 votes ahead of Ms Kelly - so the SDLP are right to be optimistic about a seat here.

However, with the seat numbers in each constituency dropping from six to five, all battles will be closely fought. Last year the result in Upper Bann was two for the DUP, two for Sinn Féin and two for the Ulster Unionists.

Jo-Anne Dobson and Doug Beattie are back on the ballot for the UUP, as is Carla Lockhart for the DUP, but this time she is joined by Cllr Jonathan Buckley, who is replacing outgoing MLA Sydney Anderson.

Ms Lockhart topped the poll last time with 7,993 first preference votes, but her announcement last month that she had only just discovered a family link to the controversial RHI scheme could be damaging.

In what was viewed by some as a late admission from the politician, who sat on the public accounts committee probing RHI, it emerged that Ms Lockhart’s sister-in-law’s husband is a farmer signed up to the botched non-domestic scheme.

No suggestion of wrongdoing

Despite no suggestion of wrongdoing on her part or that of her family, if the fallout from the controversial green energy project is a factor when unionists cast their vote, she could lose support.

Mr Beattie, a former British army captain, was elected with just 2,969 votes last time, so his position could be precarious if vote management between him and popular health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson is not well handled.

Mr Beattie is seen by some as a progressive and measured unionist voice on certain issues.

He has a significant media profile on topics such as the rights of soldiers, which has been a talking point in Northern Ireland and Britain over recent months, and could prove popular with voters.

Alliance, TUV and the Greens are among the smaller parties asking the public to vote for them on March 2nd, but unless there is a radical shift in voting patterns then they are unlikely to make much impact.

Prediction: Dolores Kelly (SDLP) has a fight on her hands but could see off competition from Sinn Féin for nationalist votes, as Nuala Toman is not known to voters and John O’Dowd took the vulnerable sixth seat last time.

The result could be: DUP (2); UUP (1); Sinn Féin (1); SDLP (1).

List of candidates:

Jonathan Buckley, Carla Lockhart (DUP)

Jo-Anne Dobson, Doug Beattie (UUP)

John O’Dowd, Nuala Toman (SF)

Tara Doyle (Alliance)

Dolores Kelly (SDLP)

Simon Lee (Greens)

Roy Ferguson (TUV)

Colin Craig (WP)

Ian Nickels (CONS)

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