All eyes on South Down for the DUP but the Lagan Valley dilemma remains

Dr. Clare Rice is a Research Associate at the University of Liverpool

South Down is a constituency that doesn’t often attract much attention when it comes to elections. A predominantly nationalist constituency, and a long-term safe Westminster seat for the SDLP, it turned a different shade of green in the 2017 election with the election of Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard as MP. It is a large constituency, spanning from Downpatrick to Rathfriland, Drumaness to Warrenpoint, and even includes part of Newry city, which does not in its entirety fall into the Newry and Armagh constituency. It is a mix of rural and urban, unionist and nationalist, and has been at the forefront of Brexit uncertainties in being one of the border constituencies.

For the up-coming election, South Down is considered to be low-hanging fruit for the Alliance Party. Patrick Brown – a Newry, Mourne and Down District (NMDDC) councillor since 2014 and Westminster candidate in 2019 – has been re-selected to run. Brown missed out on an Assembly seat in 2017 by a narrower margin than many predicted, coming sixth. For the UUP, who last held a South Down seat in 2016 with Harold McKee and previously under John McCallister between 2007-2013 before he left the party and co-founded NI21, there is a big challenge ahead. McKee is now running for the TUV. The party has not historically performed well in South Down, but appears to be hoping that fielding the ex-MLA, who quit the UUP on the basis of it becoming too liberal, will help its appeal.

At least three of the South Down seats are likely to comfortably rest with Sinn Féin and the SDLP, so the battle for the remaining 1-2 seats is intense and one that the DUP cannot afford to lose in its ambition to be returned again as the largest party in the Assembly.

When it comes to Assembly elections, there has been at least one safe unionist seat up for grabs in South Down in the post-1998 era, and Jim Wells of the DUP has been that consistent presence. But it has not been an easy relationship between Wells and the party. Having been kept at the fringes of the DUP since 2018 following his public criticism of the party’s leadership, Wells has been considered by some within the party to be a liability. A prominent media profile and views that at times were at odds with party colleagues have made for a professionally lethal combination, with Wells himself previously indicating his own doubts that he would be selected again as a party candidate.

The upcoming Assembly election is an important one for the DUP after a tumultuous year, and a succession of polls indicating it may struggle to come back as the largest party have added further pressure. Everyone needs to be on message, and Wells has shown himself to be a risky option at a time when the party needs to project a united front.

Following reports in December that the support was lacking for Wells to be the South Down candidate, it was perhaps not shocking for many to hear that he had been deselected, but it came as a bolt from the blue to hear that Edwin Poots – a stalwart of the Lagan Valley constituency – was throwing his hat into the ring for the job. It was instead expected that party leader and Kilkeel native, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, would have been eyeing up South Down for his Assembly return.

However, it is perhaps just as obvious that Poots might have considered South Down. Poots and Wells have been close allies, and are both found at the more conservative end of the party. Voters for Jim Wells would have found a lot in Edwin Poots that they could get behind, and had Wells helped to bolster support within the constituency for Poots, that might have been enough to get the constituency newcomer across the line in May. Being a well-known political figure would undoubtedly also have helped his transition to the constituency, but without a big push from the party – as opposed to relying only on support within the constituency – this would not have been an easy task, and certainly not a foregone conclusion of success come the election.

Neither was it a done deal that Poots would be given the go-ahead to stand in South Down. Within 24 hours of the news breaking about his intent, and following internal interviews, we learned that the party has instead opted to field Diane Forsythe.

Forsythe ran as a DUP candidate in the 2017 Westminster election, and is the daughter of NMDDC councillor and 2019 Westminster candidate, Glyn Hanna. She has worked as an activist within the constituency for some time, and is regarded as knowledgeable of local issues through this work for the party. While she has not held elected office before, she has been moving in these circles and has built a profile within the area that will prove essential to draw upon in seeking election to the Assembly.

She was most recently in the headlines as one of three South Down members to resign from the party in June 2021 in the wake of bullying and sexism claims within the DUP. Notably, this happened under Poots’ short tenure as leader, and her return to the party came following Donaldson taking the reins.

Her selection over Wells and Poots points to the party trying to present a different image in South Down that will not only shore up the existing voter base, but also appeal to a broader one. Wells made it to the fifth count before being elected in 2017 – the party will not be wanting to see a repeat of that.

It also points to the party’s ongoing efforts to project a united front after the upheaval of the last year, something that would not have been possible with the distraction that Wells or Poots running in South Down had the potential to cause. Running a solid campaign will be integral to consolidating Donaldson as a leader of the party as opposed to a figurehead caught in limbo between Westminster and the Assembly. The change in South Down is not just a reflection of the party taking a new direction there, but likely an indication that the party is attempting to set a different course overall with Donaldson at the helm.

Now, Poots is in the unenviable position of having put all his eggs in the South Down basket and now has no option but to look back again to Lagan Valley. Will voters there be forgiving of his attempt to leave them, should he be selected? And could a potential run for Westminster in the expected event of Donaldson being returned to the Assembly also be scuppered as a result?

What was already set to be a challenge for Poots in Lagan Valley has now become even more difficult. Ironically, it seems to have been his role in Arlene Foster’s downfall, which led to his own brief rise to power as party leader, that could ultimately lead to his own undoing.

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