South Antrim report: The most marginal of them all?

The Reverend William McCrea took the South Antrim seat in a by election in 2000, fter the death of the UUP incumbent Clifford Forsythe, and then promptly lost it again in 2001 to David Burnside, thanks in part to a swell of anti DUP sentiment that stretched as far as some Alliance and nationalist voters. McCrea then took the seat back in 2005 winning by just 14,507 to 11,059. As announced by Ivor last night, this may Sir Reg Empey’s one chance to snatch a modest victory for the Ulster Unionists. It looks like one the party’s few chances to nick one back after the loss of their former North Down MP.There are substantial boundary changes to be taken into account, which sees the transfer out of large parts of Glengormley into North Belfast, and the transfer in of Glenavy. But the net effect will be to port a small proportion of nationalist votes out of the constituency. It’s unlikely to affect the overall result.

Declared candidates so far include: Sir Reg Empey (UUP); Alan Lawther (Alliance); Mel Lucas (TUV, formerly DUP); Willie McCrea (DUP). Mitchel McLaughlin is expected to stand for Sinn Fein, but the SDLP will be fielding a new, younger candidate since, this time out, their preferred Thomas Burns is unable to stand for family reasons.

The Ulster Unionist challenger here was a late entrant and a compromise candidate brokered locally when Adrian Watson and his supporters made it clear they would not support the Tories prefered candidate, Danny Kinihan. Kinihan is well liked even amongst his political rivals, but is generally viewed as too recently arrived in professional politics to have made a good fight of it.

Empey has the virtue of being a party leader, and as a Stormont Minister name recognition will surely count for something. And he should gain the whole hearted backing of a constituency association which was in danger of splitting over the perceived interference of London based Tories in the Watson candidacy.

However the lateness of Empey’s arrival must be disturbing for the party given this was always, theoretically at least, their lowest hanging fruit. This constituency was on the party’s radar from the get go, but it may indicate the that Reg’s centralising reforms have not enabled him to exert power from the centre over the edge. By contrast the DUP’s central decision not to run a candidate in North Down bypassed the local association almost completely.

Since 2005 McCrea has been assiduously digging in. Any potential rifts within the DUP with the deselection of the locally popular Paul Girvan as an Assembly candidate in the constituency in 2007 seem largely to have been resolved, and Girvan must fancy his chances of picking up the co-option into the Assembly when Peter Robinson’s pledge to do away with double and triple jobbing kicks in the summer.

As Sammy Morse notes in the comments over at Political Betting, the anti McCrea effect of 2001 has largely burned itself out as nationalists concern themselves more with maximising their own vote in preparation for next year’s Assembly elections.

Key things to keep an eye on. How much can Lucas retain of his respectable local election vote, to take some of the DUP’s lead over the Ulster Unionists? Can Empey galvanise what’s left of the Ulster Unionist base enough to do the rest? And, with a key local candidate for the SDLP out of the race, can Sinn Fein press its way into second place, despite a lapse in the strength of its local organisation?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty