#AE16 East Londonderry: A very tight and complex fight for 5th and 6th seats

Candidates: [DUP] Maurice Bradley, Adrian McQuillan, George Robinson; [UUP] Aaron Callan, William McCandless; [Sinn Fein] Cathal Ó hOisín, Caoimhe Archibald; [SDLP] Gerry Mullan; [Independent Unionist] Claire Sugden; [Alliance] Yvonne Boyle; [Greens] Amber Hammill; [UKIP] Steven Parkhill; [TUV] Jordan Armstrong; [NI Conservatives] David Harding, Stuart Canning; [PUP] Russell Watton; [Independent] Tor Christie.

East Londonderry starts at Eglinton just outside Derry city, running up to the boundary with North Antrim on the coast. The hinterlands of Coleraine, Limavady, Dungiven and Garvagh all represent separate and distinct political territories.

Current religious balance is 53.27% Protestant, 41.70% Catholic and 4.35% none. It’s educationally high achieving with an 81.9% A*-C pass rate at GCSE (third highest in NI), although it slips to 11th when it comes to Higher Education.

There are two and possibly even three vulnerable seats here. As Nicholas Whyte points out the two more obvious vulnerabilities are Unionist Independent Claire Sugden and the third DUP seat.

But the relatively last minute decision of Kilrea based veteran John Dallat to retire has done his would be SDLP successor – the Limavady-based Gerry Mullan – no favours at all. Of which, more later.

The DUP’s embarrassment of riches from the 2011 election – when almost everything that could have gone right did go right – now becomes a heavier burden. Most vulnerable is the last man over then, former postman Adrian McQuillan.

He’ll be aided this time by the fact that with Gregory Campbell gone, neither of his party rivals are big names. The TUV was weaker than expected in 2011 and didn’t stand here in 2014, so he may expect transfers from there too.

Still the party’s stock has been falling steadily even with Gregory generating a steady drip of controversialist headlines. They needed 36.9% to get across in 2011 and took only 28% in the 2014 locals.

The Ulster Unionists split the year before, with the late David McClarty leaving the party to set up a one-stop independent shop. After his tragic death, Claire Sugden found herself nominated for the co-option.

It took her a couple of years to get going, but she’s begun to bring some focus to her political profile over the last two and is widely thought to be one of the more competent of East Londonderry’s representatives at Stormont.

It is likely too that she will take votes and (more importantly) transfers from all over the constituency, not least in large measure from Alliance’s veteran and all weather candidate Yvonne Boyle.

Sugden is inordinately dependent on how the votes stack up elsewhere as to what happens next. Untested at the ballot box, first in the line up must be her old boss’s former party, the UUP.

McClarty wiped the floor with his local Constituency Association after they bizarrely deselected him in 2011 in favour of the now Conservative candidate David Harding and Leslie Macauley.

This time with two candidates in the race last year’s Westminster candidate William McCandless is almost certain to take a seat.

It’s just a question of which one: Sugden’s or McQuillan’s? And, if Sugden goes out first, would her transfers bring the second UUP candidate Aaron Callan?

Now to the nationalist side of the race. I’m fairly sure that East Londonderry was on that leaked list of five vulnerable SDLP seats. Dallat’s hasty departure only exacerbates a problem which was already there.

Gerry Mullan is especially vulnerable to a peculiarly East Londonderry sub-brand of Sinn Fein. One political insider once referred to the Brolly powerhouse couple Francie and Ann as the Alliance wing of Sinn Fein.

Here, probably as nowhere else in Northern Ireland, the party is more respected than feared these days. Sitting MLA Cathal O’hOisin is now considered a shoo-in.

His running mate Caoimhe Archibald (daughter of the 2011 SF candidate Bernadette) is young attractive and smart and has a real chance of running through the middle to take the seat from the SDLP.

The SDLP has senior talent at council in Coleraine. But Dallat’s peerless ability to sniff a story and put himself in the centre of it over the years appears to have come at the expense of the party’s soft presence on the ground.

And there are some internal fears that the man himself has been doing very little work (a common refrain down the years inside the party) in order secure Mullan’s election. Or indeed, his own political legacy.

If Sinn Fein can hack out two quotas they’re home and hosed. Anything short of that, and Archibald will struggle to get the transfers she needs to get herself over the line. Failing that, the other threat may be Sugden (+ Alliance).

At least Mr Eastwood’s general forward defensive strategy of running just one candidate should ensure that the SDLP will avoid doing any of Mullan’s rivals unnecessarily profligate favours.

Sugden’s presence here makes East Londonderry almost impossible to call accurately, but I’m going to try to keep my (scaredy) predictive toes dry by being very small ‘c’ conservative this time…

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

RELATED: This morning’s #SluggerReport: