Again, of the folk who turned up all bar one said they would be voting. Out on the streets, in Portglenone and in Ballymena itself there were several, mostly older folk who had already sat out several elections and were not planning to return.
We talked at length about the issues affecting life in North Antrim and there was a great deal of engagement, particularly around crime. There was a sense that community relations were improving with one Ulster Unionist suggesting that a large number of Catholic youngsters were happily conversing on his constituency association’s Facebook pages.
It was also suggested that mixed marriages were on the rise, up to and including the children of committed Free Presbyterians. But no one felt that any of that ease in social relations would lead to any early emergence of a substantial middle ground: “There is no viable middle ground for the electorate. Tribal considerations always resurface”.
Indeed. The only likely change here is the emergence of the Traditional Unionist Voice leader, Jim Allister, who whilst hopeful of gains elsewhere is probably only guaranteed a seat. Because of boundary changes that’s likely to come at the expense of the SDLP candidate, Declan O’Loan.
The reduction of choice on the nationalist side was openly resented. In fact, as Ken Reid pointed out the wholesale lopping of the largely Catholic Glens of Antrim was probably the single most swingeing change in the boundary commission changes from a few years back. As one of our attendees at the Braid, rather acutely noted afterwards:
Naturally North Antrim nationalists have the choice between voting for Sinn Fein or … wait for it … Sinn Fein. That being said; in my opinion Sinn Fein don’t regard Ballymoney as any way important for MLA elections since SDLP will probably do the ground work for them!
That said, I caught up with former Slugger Councillor of the Year, Deirdre Nelson. She introduced an interesting thought (though not one more widely entertained amongst our pundits), that apathy amongst Unionist voters could be O’Loan’s chance in any scramble for the fourth seat.
One thing that did come up somewhat were problems in the school estate. Put simply, there are more school places than pupils and the selective schools are colonising ever downwards through the ability ranges leaving the High Schools struggling to compete with for higher ability students.
That said, the interpretation most Unionists we spoke to is the rather simple one that Caitriona Ruane’s attempts to reform selection (and what they perceive to be consistent targeting of the Grammars) was to blame. Ironically this might prove one of the few real drivers in getting apathetic unionist voters out the polls.
If you want to follow these debates in more detail, I’d recommend you follow the excellent @UTVElection Twitter account for first class tweet notes from each of these events. And to follow the wider conversation, keep following the #UTVtrip hastag.
The first of next week’s events are in Foyle in a great wee cafe just outside the walls at the bottom of Shipquay Street, the Cafe del Mondo. That’s Tuesday evening.
After some considerable deliberation (thanks to all of you on Twitter who helped us decide) we’re hosting the Fermanagh South Tryone event in the marvellous new Clinton Centre in Belmore Street.
Just remember that if you book and find on the day and you find you cannot come, just let us know, me pinging me an email ([email protected]), or sending me a Tweet. My Twitter name is @mickfealty.
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