A few thoughts on Upper Bann, and its battle royale for the final seat

The Upper Bann Constituency on the southern shores of Lough Neagh is a sublime blend of village and rural life alongside the three main towns of Banbridge, Lurgan and Portadown. Banbridge and Portadown – in the main – are largely protestant with a unionist electorate with Lurgan being mixed, with approx 55% protestant/unionist electorate and 45% nationalist/republican electorate.

I have strong ties to the area and a fair degree of local knowledge having worked for former MLA, the late George Savage, and managed the May 2016 Assembly Election campaign for his son Kyle. Here are a few of my thoughts on the upcoming election in Upper Bann:

In 2016, the main electoral battle in Upper Bann was within nationalism and republicanism. Outgoing MLA Delores Kelly (SDLP) was under extreme pressure from SF who in then outgoing Education Minister John O’Down and then Craigavon Councillor Catherine Seeley had built up an extensive profile in the area.

As things worked out, SF poorly balanced their vote with Seeley galloping ahead leaving her running mate to slug it out with the SDLP. After 11 stages and a few sub stages thrown in for the craic John O’Down took the sixth and final seat by some 177 votes.

It’s worth noting here that the situation with O’Down is further proof that as Mick recently pointed out on the Slugger Report recently, Ministerial office counts for precious little in an Assembly Election in Northern Ireland.

In 2017, Delores Kelly is running for the SDLP and judging by her tone of late in the Lurgan Mail, she wants her seat back.

Catherine Seeley has accepted an offer of employment outside politics and so has stepped back allowing SF party staffer Nuala Toman to stand alongside John O’Dowd.

Seeley was 900 ahead of O’Dowd on first preferences last May so SF will want to balance that out a bit more.

In 2016, on the Unionist side, DUP Craigavon Councillor and newcomer to Assembly elections Carla Lockhart, surprised many – including herself- by topping the poll and being pelted on the first count with her surplus helping her running mate, veteran Sydney Anderson over the line.

For the UUP, Doug Beattie, Joanne Dobson and Kyle Savage led the line, representing Portadown, Banbridge and Lurgan respectively. All in all, UUP activists were disappointed with Joanne’s first preference total of 5155 (1400 shy of quota) – even though she polled well in Banbridge, she was beaten 3 to 1 by Lockhart in her back yard of Waringstown.

Doug Beattie polled reasonably well in his first election with 2969 considering that Portadown is considered to be the DUP stronghold in Upper Bann. Kyle Savage fought his first election campaign in the Lurgan area along with part of his home patch of Donaghcloney and it is unclear how much of this vote (1,760) was a personal vote – for Kyle personally or linked to the track record of his father, the late George Savage, twice former Mayor of Craigavon and 2 term MLA – and how of much of it is a party vote.

What is clear is that the UUP didn’t afford him enough of an area in which to build a real solid first preference base with which to have gone on and won a seat.

In the same fashion as Dobson in Waringstown, Savage was losing to Lockhart by a similar margin in the Mourneview Estate.

In 2017, I’d expect the DUP to mount a similar campaign as in 2016. Sydney Anderson has decided to retire and local Councillor, Jonathan Buckley has stepped up.

This is a smart choice by the DUP, Jonathan is well known and well liked in the community and he is Portadown through and through and so is the perfect follow on from Sydney Anderson.

Carla Lockhart has built a profile for herself locally over 5 years on Council and now 8 months into her Assembly career and will expect to poll strongly in the Lurgan area, particularly in the Mourneview Estate, around Magheralin, Waringstown and then down into Banbridge.

For the UUP an election to a five seater in Upper Bann poses a major challenge. Joanne Dobson is in the driving seat having garnered 5,155 first preferences in 2016. Doug Beattie is well behind on 2,969 and so it will make Kyle Savage’s first preference of 1,760 vital in helping the UUP hold what they have.

If the UUP gave Doug basically all of Lurgan and assuming Kyle’s vote went en bloc to Doug, he would still be 426 votes behind. However, they may get a small surplus from the DUP and if we accept that both candidates are transfer friendly, one could reasonably suggest that Doug will do well in transfers from TUV, UKIP and PUP of whom Doug has build quite a rapport with Sophie Long on Twitter.

Joanne will benefit from Alliance transfers. A lot will depend on how Sinn Fein balance their vote.

It’s however also reasonable to expect the Joanne Dobson camp to want Donaghcloney and Lurgan so this could end up being a bitter battle. I’d expect UUP HQ to have made decisions on this matter and to give very clear instructions on canvass areas etc.

It will also be interesting to see what impact Nesbitt’s comments on transferring to the SDLP will have on the campaign in this area.

2017 – overall conclusions

The DUP candidates should get over the line on first 2/3 counts.
Followed by first the UUP – count 6/7
Then followed by SF – count 7/8/9
There will be a battle royale between UUP – SDLP – SF for the final seat.

If SDLP go out first – will they transfer to UUP or to SF?
If SF go out first will they transfer to SDLP?
If UUP go out first will they transfer to SDLP?

In conclusion, I believe that there will be 3 unionist seats in Upper Bann with 2 nationalist seats – the only question being if the last seat is won by Sinn Fein or the SDLP. I think it’s too close to call.