Sammy’s Newry and Armagh constituency report (all feature on Slugger’s election sidebar) is worth savouring for the fineness of the demographic detail. This strongly Nationalist constituency is also, it would appear, solidly Catholic, in the old cultural sense of what that once meant more widely in Ireland. Birth rates are by far highest here, with economic prosperity only kicking in in recent years.It is exceptional, even in European terms. As Sammy notes, it is “the last place in Northern Ireland where there is birth rate outstrips replacement level, and the last place where the great Catholic baby boom of the ’70s and ’80s is still continuing”. As well as a competitive fight here between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, there is the question of what happens to Paul Berry’s former DUP vote. The potential drama is obvious to anyone who has been following Slugger over the last few years:
Nicholas Whyte’s figures show a knife edge finish last time, with Sinn Féin’s Patricia O’Rawe edging out the SDLP’s Jim Lennon by the narrowest of margins for a gain. Net result: Sinn Féin 3, SDLP 1, UUP 1, DUP 1. In a sign that counts don’t have to be long to be exciting, just five stages here resulted in a virtual photo finish. O’Rawe finished the count exacly 600 votes ahead of Lennon, but Danny Kennedy’s undistributed surplus of 578 would almost certainly have narrowed that gap to double figures and a tiny SDLP suprlus of 14 would have narrowed it further. Since then, three MLAs, two SF and one DUP, have been deselected by their parties and two are standing as Independents.
However, Sammy doesn’t think Berry has a hope in denting his former party’s vote, and even with a strong anti Agreement platform Willie Frazer will struggle to get near 2000 (which would be more than double anything he has achieved before. Which brings us to the question of the Nationalist race:
It’s worth remembering this is not Belfast or East Tyrone. The SDLP outpolled Sinn Féin more often than not pre-ceasefire, even in Slieve Gullion. The ground isn’t as fertile for dissidents here as in Mid Ulster or Fermanagh & South Tyrone, at least on paper. It’s the peculiar circumstances of Sinn Féin’s selection meeting and the tight battle between the SDLP and SF for the last seat in 2003 that leaves things looking very interesting.
With a three way battle for the last seat, it’s hard set a winning post here in the way I did for dissidents in Mid Ulster and FST. However, 10% is probably enough to knock out one of the three Sinn Féin candidates, and if Murphy significantly exceeds the quota on the first count, even 7-8% might be enough. Could Hyland then win? He would depend on Sinn Féin transfers him favouring him heavily over the SDLP, which I can’t see, and even up at the 12% mark he would struggle to beat well balanced SDLP candidates, given the latter’s ability to attract UUP transfers.
That means Hyland probably needs a almost whole quota – 13.5% or so – to guarantee himself a seat. I can’t see that. But even a couple of thousand votes might be enough to let the SDLP win back their second seat, if enough of them fail to transfer to Sinn Féin. Would Hyland consider that a result? I doubt it’s exactly the result he’s looking for. But he would probably still consider it a result.