#AE16 Newry Armagh: Despite a couple of long shots, incumbency should have it…

Candidates: [Sinn Fein] Conor Murphy, Megan Fearon, Cathal Boylan; [UUP] Danny Kennedy, Sam Nicholson; [DUP] William Irwin; [SDLP] Karen McKevitt, Justin McNulty; [Alliance] Craig Weir; [UKIP] Alan Love; [Greens] Michael Watters; [CISTA NI] Emmet Crossan; [Independents] Paul Berry, Martin McAllister.

Newry Armagh is the second largest constituency in Northern Ireland, so quota levels are higher leaving few realistic competitors here for the six seats available. 66.4% of its population is Catholic, 30.6% Protestant, and just 2.5% with no religion.

Numbers and geography make it hard for anyone looking to create an upset. What’s rock solid certain is it will split 4/2 Nationalist Unionist. But as Nicholas Whyte points out there are two interesting long shots here.

The more compelling of the two is on the Unionist side. In both the Westminster and local elections the UU got a fairly hefty ‘border bounce’. With more than two quotas between the two of them, the UUP currently enjoy a 2/1 advantage over their Unionist rivals.

Unlike other parts of rural Ulster, DUP man William Irwin is ‘well got’ amongst Ulster Unionists, but they also have Jim Nicholson’s son John Sam running here, who by all accounts cuts a more than plausible figure in his own right.

The quota in 2011 was 6,645. Irwin’s first preferences got him over last time, but then Danny was only running on his own. To take the two seats the UUs will have to trim Kennedy’s vote severely to get the sort of spillover needed to get Nicholson over the line.

The electoral physics on the other side is even harder to predict. The biggest single electoral draw in Newry Armagh is Conor Murphy who just pipped Kennedy to top the poll in 2011 with a whopping 19.6%, nearly half the party’s total share.

Yet the SDLP is optimistic for a couple of reasons. Sentimentally, this was the last Westminster seat they ceded to SF after Seamus Mallon’s retirement. More pragmatically, in 2011 Murphy’s gravitational pull almost let Thomas O’Hanlon in ahead of Mickey Brady.

But it’s not enough to succeed in politics, in order to win, others must fail. And SF has sound reasons for optimism. The last council election rise for the SDLP saw SF keep proportionately ahead of them. Conor Murphy’s ‘local hero’ status should keep their vote stable.

In the Westminsters last year, Justin McNulty shipped a decent increase, particularly in his non-native north of Co Armagh. Whether that was due to McNulty’s county-wide pull, or SF running a Newry-based candidate is hard to tell.

McNulty’s running mate is former incumbent South Down MLA Karen McKevitt. She has an established profile as a politician, although not in Armagh. McNulty has ceded much of his own south Armagh home area to her in an effort to get her in.

What always messes with SDLP calculations here is the residual health of the Sinn Fein vote. Come election day, the relevant question for the SDLP may be: if they balance as well as they must in order to take the seat but come up short, which of the two SDLPers loses?

Newry and Armagh may contain tantalising ‘possibilities’, but as of now my money is on an ‘as you were’ return. Two UUP, Two SDLP and Two SF is not beyond possibility. But without some radical redefining air campaign, I’m sticking with the status quo…

Prediction: 3 SF; 1 UUP; 1 SDLP; 1 DUP.