Ritchie needs unionist support to see off Ruane and keep Sinn Féin out


SOUTH DOWN:This is the only contest in the North where the two main competitors are women, writes GERRY MORIARTYNorthern Editor

THE MAIN reason the SDLP cited for rejecting a pact with Sinn Féin over Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Belfast was that it would be an act of “sectarianism and tribalism”. Another big reason is South Down.

New SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie knows that to hold on to the seat vacated by Eddie McGrady after 23 years in the House of Commons she will need unionist support – regardless of the hefty 9,000 vote advantage Mr McGrady held over Sinn Féin from the last election.

Ms Ritchie wasn’t going to risk her chances by entering into an arrangement with Sinn Féin that could have antagonised the tactical unionist voters of this beautiful constituency where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Steady Eddie McGrady took the seat from the Wolverhampton wanderer Enoch Powell in 1987 after three previous failed attempts. It was a pursuit to the death.

Now South Down is a nationalist seat but the current battle is not dissimilar to the hard battles Mr McGrady had to fight before making the constituency his own. The favourite to take South Down is his former aide-de-camp Ms Ritchie but she faces serious opposition from her colleague on the Northern Executive, Sinn Féin Minister for Education Caitríona Ruane who also stood in 2005.

The DUP and Ulster Unionists-Conservatives have Assembly members standing in, respectively, Jim Wells and John McCallister.

Ivor McConnell of the Traditional Unionist Voice is also running, as are David Griffin for Alliance and Cadogan Enright for the Greens.

Mr Wells and Mr McCallister will work to maintain their Assembly status here and to try to see off any future serious challenge from the TUV.

Alliance and the Greens will seek to gain a foothold. But equally, Mr Wells and Mr McCallister know what this election is really about.

It’s a two-woman race. In fact this is the only contest in Northern Ireland where the two main competitors are women.

Neither wants to give publicity to the other, but there are some barbed comments to illustrate the depth of the rivalry.

Says Ms Ritchie, “The people here see me as somebody who belongs to south Down, born and bred in south Down who has actively represented this constituency in many formats for 25 years. They are equally determined they want an MP who is going to take their seat in Westminster”.

Two points are being made here: one, that Ms Ruane were she to win would not take her seat in the House of Commons because of Sinn Féin’s abstentionism, and, two, that Ms Ruane is a blow-in because she lives across the Border in Co Louth.

“We are not going to take an oath to the queen,” Ms Ruane ripostes. She accuses SDLP MPs of being “lazy” representatives while Sinn Féin has done its successful negotiating at Downing Street. “The big issue in the next election will be the block grant to Northern Ireland and that won’t be sorted out on the floor of the House of Commons, but in Downing Street. That’s where Sinn Féin comes in because we are good negotiators.”

She says she is a committed South Down MLA. And even in this generally moderate constituency, she adds, there is nationalist “anger” that the SDLP did not stand aside in Fermanagh-South Tyrone where Michelle Gildernew, a “Minister, a woman and a mother” is facing the combined unionist opposition of the “DUP, the Ulster Unionists, the TUV and the Orange Order”.

“That was a disgrace, it showed a failure of leadership,” adds Ms Ruane, quite obviously referring to the new SDLP leader.

On the face of it Ms Ruane, a former Irish international tennis player who “plays to win”, could take the seat. After all in the Assembly elections of 2007 she polled 6,334 votes to Ms Ritchie’s 5,838, while overall the SDLP was only marginally ahead in the six-seater constituency with 14,462 votes to Sinn Féin’s 14,134 votes.

But this is where unionist support comes in. SDLP psephologists privately estimate that in recent elections some 4,000 unionists have voted for Mr McGrady to keep Sinn Féin out, while some of their unionist counterparts reckon this support is worth up to 6,000 votes.

The position of Ms Ruane is not helped by the confusion over how children transfer from primary to second-level education and how an important constituency, many of them middle class unionists and nationalists, accuse her of seeking to destroy the North’s grammar school sector.

That annoyance over education allied to a tactical unionist preference for the SDLP over Sinn Féin should be sufficient to ensure Ms Ritchie takes South Down.