Nice move from Sinn Fein in their choice of MLA to replace Willie Clarke in South Down. The new boy (seen here signing in at Stormont) is Chris Hazzard, a native of Drumaness, in the north of the constituency. He’s a alum of my old school, which we used to call St Pat’s Knock (grammar school) and has just completed his studies for a PhD at Queens on subjects that might almost have been chosen for his new political life at Stormont in mind.
He’s a passionate GAA supporter of his county who, Slugger understands, is not behind giving the ref a fair slice of his mind from the sidelines. His exceptional commitment to the county team will do him no harm in a GAA mad part of the world, not just because it continues to be a social nexus for nationalist politics, but it will also help reduce the continuing social resistance to voting Sinn Fein here.
He’ll no doubt be targeting Margaret Ritchie’s back yard from Ballinahinch and down into Downpatrick, where there’s already a sense that the younger generation are more prepared than their parents or grandparents have been to give Sinn Fein an option beyond transplanted strongholds like the Flying Horse estate.
There’s speculation that he rather than Catriona Ruane may get the nod for the next Westminster run against Ritchie. Sinn Fein can afford to run and lose against Ritchie (who’s local work rate and constituency commitment is hardly in doubt for a party with, let’s just say, has a mixed record on that score).
It’s a good forward defensive move (if using a cricketing term in regard to SF politician is not considered too sacrilegious) in one of the few places where the SDLP has already made a functional strategic decision to back Sean Rogers to protect the party’s flank across the centre of the constituency, with the young councillor Colin McGrath now having to take on an incumbent Hazzard in the north.
Hazzard is one of a new generation of SF representatives who, like Phil Flanagan in FST and even Belfast’s Lord Mayor, have no real memory of the troubles. He will be given space to make his own running in a party that has enough comfort to ‘pull’ senior players like Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew into the background and give the next generation their head.