Eamonn O’Neill: “come out and vote – this is an important election” (#ae11 #sdo11)

Eamonn O’Neill is hoping the voters of South Down will return him to the Assembly where he served a term from 1998, only to subsequently miss out in 2003 by the narrowest of margins, just 36 votes. The Castlewellan-based SDLP representative didn’t stand in the 2007 election but has maintained a high profile locally, currently serving as Chairperson of Down District Council, where he has spent thirty-fours years as a councillor.

Over the years Sinn Féin’s vote in the constituency has increased at the expense of the SDLP, although the first-past-the-post electoral system at the May 2010 Westminster saw Margaret Ritchie returned with 48.5%, compared to Caitriona Ruane’s 28.7%. I caught up with O’Neill on the canvass in the Drumee estate in Castlewellan and asked him if he thought this result was an anomaly or signalled a halt in Sinn Fein’s rise (no prizes for guessing his answer):

I would contend that Margaret Ritchie’s election victory is the turn of the tide. I can see it. We meet it on the doorstep. People are telling us they are changing and we want to encourage them to be courageous and make that change.

As for the prediction (by Jim Wells) that the sixth and final seat could come down to a battle between O’Neill and the UUP’s John McCallister:

It is likely to be a tight situation. There are possibilities for us to regain our seat on two grounds, I believe. One is that one of our local Sinn Féin MLAs has simply been described – on the net – as “not performing” and that word is getting out amongst the people, so there is an opportunity for us there to regain a seat. And the second one is the unionist mandate may indeed be reduced as a result of the boundary changes, and that may very well create another opportunity. But … we are saying to our supporters, “come out and vote – this is an important election”. If we have the confidence of the voters, we will win.

Time, of course, will tell.

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan

  • 241934 john brennan

    Yes: Eamonn O Neill will definitely be returned as an SDLP MLA for South Down

    With constituency boundary changes, and as recent Westminster elections show, unionists will have difficulty getting 2 quotas in this Assembly election.

    Furthermore, SF is struggling with one candidate parachuted in from Louth; another parachuted in from Ards and a third doing little more than marking time at Stormont.

    Also, this is the first time ever for both Local Council and Assembly elections on the same day. The SDLP in South Down is fielding a very strong team of experienced and hardworking local Councillors.

    The combination of all these factors, together with O Neill’s own proven track record, will see him elected to the Assembly

  • Yes just to add that in 2003 Eamonn O’Neill lost his seat by 36 votes to……..Margaret Ritchie.
    Also Cllr O’Neill has not just maintained a profile locally. He has also maintained one as a Human Rights Commissioner (2005-11 was it?) which might account for him not standing in 2007.
    And while Mr Corrigan has obviously no conflict of interest (this being part of a series which has included Cadogan Enright) it would possibly have been advisable to point out their mutual appreciation of human rights in the introduction.

  • South Down Stoop

    Where will his seat come from, though? Clarke or McCallister?

    I personally think it quite possible that O’Neill could take Clarke’s seat. Compared to 2007, there is a much better geographical balance between the SDLP candidates of North Ritchie, Centre O’Neill and Border McKevitt, compared to Bradley and Carr having essentially identical bases in 2007.

    Clarke has never been a strong MLA on his own, coming 5th and 6th in ’07 and ’03 respectively and relying on transfers from Ruane and the perennial third candidate. He’ll be further hurt this time around by (some) dis-satisfaction with Ruane among traditiona voters, as well as his announcement that he’ll resign one of his posts after election and Naomi Bailie’s blow in status.

    Meanwhile McCallister is quite well liked in nationalist Newcastle and surrounding areas, and could pick up a lot of personal SDLP/Green/Alliance 2nds, on top of his own core vote and DUP transfers.

    SDLP 3 SF 1 DUP 1 UUP 1 ?

    [Would have posted this on the original South Down thread but it’s pretty much run it’s course, hopefully this thread will rejuvenate the debate.]

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    SF had over two full quotas last time around and anyone who thinks they are not going to get 2 seats this time around is letting their enthusiasm get in the way of reality.

  • Sean Og

    O’Neill has an excellent chance but there will only be 2 SDLP seats.

  • Eamonn O’Neill is (courtesy of Wikipedia) 66 years od and will therefore be 70 when his term ends (if elected). There is of course absolutely no reason why a man or woman of 66 should not stand for election.
    South Down has always been a happy hunting ground for SDLP. Going back to 1973 when it was represented by McGrady, O’Donoghue and Feely. The pattern for selection is usually the same……Downpatrick, Newcastle and Mournes (Newry). Same this time.
    But Id wonder if Eamonn O’Neill actually sought the nomination or was prevailed upon to do so in the hope that it might just work.
    His fellow SDLP councillors in Newcastle are veterans. Carmel O’Boyle has been around since the 1990s and Peter Fitzpatrick since at least the early 1980s.
    And they are all three standing again. Nothing wrong with that of course but it suggests a missing generation there. This is an area untouched by SDLP young ‘uns who are making an impact elsewhere.

  • FJH, thanks for plugging this series of interviews which I’ve been carrying out wearing my newcastlerocks.org local blogger hat, with additional material about the election online there.
    For the record, this has so far resulted in interviews with SF’s Willie Clarke, DUP’s Jim Wells, UUP’s John McCallister, the Greens’ Cadogan Enright and now the SDLP’s Eamonn O’Neill, each selected as they are asking for the first preferences of the voters of the beautiful seaside town of Newcastle, Ireland best kept town (2009).
    I am happy to report that I enjoyed talking to them all, and each and every one of them will be getting some sort of vote from me!

  • Charminator

    Thanks for this Patrick, a very interesting snapshot of South Down indeed.
    There’s something particularly sad about running a trapped-out, failed politician. This former MLA lost his seat near a decade ago – have they no one in the constituency below 40, even below 60, to run? This is an all-too-familiar story of a party that’s literally dying on its feet. That – and the stunt of replacing their MLAs mid-term to take advantage of the ‘no by-election’ gig, O’Callaghan in Foyle, McDevitt in South Belfast etc….
    If the SDLP take a third seat in South Down, with no vision for Irish Nationalism and little unity on the future direction of the party [McGlone (FF), Attwood, Ritchie (pro-Labour), O’Loan (single Nationalist Party)], it would be nothing short of a disaster. Happily, I can’t see it happening. Ritchie must surely be a polarising figure and no matter how poorly Ruane’s performing – and without doubt, she’s performly poorly – that’s never going to be enough for even lukewarm Republicans to vote for poppy-wearing Ritchie.
    I’m no Shinner, but like elsewhere in the North, if they don’t increase their share of the vote here, I’d be very surprised. Teenagers and young 20-somethings voting for the first time alone will not for a pensioner politician.
    And there’s absolutely nothing ageist about this either, before the PC brigade kicks in. Look at the SDLP age profile across the North – if anything they discriminate against under-40s, never mind under-30s!

  • Charminator

    South Down Stoop – Living in cloud cuckoo land, if you think the SDLP will win a seat at SF’s expense. Perhaps, in dream circumstances, they’ll take the UUP one, but one of SF’s two seats: hell will freeze over… and I’ll be logging on here on May 6th to note it.

  • Barry the Blender

    For what it’s worth, Sinn Fein seem safe for 2 with their 28 odd percent. Stoops definitely have 2 here. 3rd runner battling it out with McCallister and Wells for the last two seats.

    Too close to call.

  • just sayin

    “this is an important election” – given Eamonns age, clearly it is. Don’t be too hard on the SDLP though they do have an interesting 18 yr old council candidate in Derry.

    Truth is, I can’t see any younger, capable SDLP candidates in this area.

    My prediction is that Eamonn may miss out narrowly again probably to SF this time.

  • roadnottaken

    Just sayin – the original candidate (the name of the man is evading me at present and I cant be bothered googling it) in Derry stepped aside…health reasons I think was the line provided… So the “interesting” candidate was a replacement, NOT a conscious decision.