Upper Bann: Fifth seat will be toss-up between UUP's Doug Beattie and Sinn Féin's Nuala Toman
WITH returning MLAs shrinking by one per constituency, the cosy two-thirds-one-third unionist-nationalist symmetry will end in Upper Bann no matter what. But talk about living in denial.
"It defo won't be us mate" (or words to that effect) has been the generic response from the DUP, UUP and Sinn Féin when pressed which one of them is likely to see their two-seat allocation halved.
Yet something has to give - and the suggestion is that Sinn Féin's years-long struggle to garner a precious second seat here (it was their only gain across the north last May) will have been rewarded with a mere nine-month tenure at Stormont, and that it possibly won't get both its runners home this time.
There are arguably three reasons for this possible change across the battlegrounds that are Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge.
Firstly Catherine Seeley, who even out-polled running mate John O'Dowd by nearly 1,000 first-preferences last time, has left the stage to return to teaching, and the party's second-string runner Nuala Toman, with the greatest respect, doesn't have anywhere near the same high profile, despite currently working in President Gerry Adams' office. SF's traditional failure to balance the numbers may also come into play
The SDLP's Dolores Kelly is back stalking her nemesis opposition. The 4,200-plus number-ones she's likely to muster mightn't be enough to book her ticket back to the big house, but may just be the "splitting point" for that second nationalist seat.
And thirdly there's the UUP's decision to run just two candidates this time instead of three, and the likelihood that they should pick up the bulk of the 1,000-odd votes which went last time to well-known Orangeman and unionist Davy Jones, who stood on a UKIP ticket but who's absent this time round. That would just about take them to two quotas and ensure that Doug Beattie, the most vulnerable of their two candidates, pips Toman to the final seat.
Ten of the 12 candidates stood last time, including Roy Ferguson of the TUV, Simon Lee (Greens) and Emma Hutchinson (NI Labour), who between them collected the thick end of 2,000 first preferences.
In Portadown-educated politics graduate Tara Doyle, the Alliance has gone for a less high profile runner than Harry Hamilton, and the suggestion is she might struggle to get the party's historic three or four per cent share of the vote.
Expect the DUP's Carla Lockhart to top the poll again, and her running make Jonny Buckley, who is replacing veteran Sydney Anderson, is a virtual shoo-in to join her, notwithstanding the RHI effect and her family link to the scandal.
Despite not being declared elected until tea-time on the Saturday last time and without a quota, it ought to be a much more comfortable outing for John O'Dowd (SF) this time, while the UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson is a short-odds favourite to return too as her party's principal flag-carrier.
So that's four to lump your money on, leaving the crucial fifth and final seat a head-to-head between Sandhurst-educated ex-British soldier Beattie and Lurgan new-mum Toman, who has worked at national level for SF for the past five years and who went close to taking an unlikely seat for the party in Castlereagh in the last local council elections.
Whoever it is, though, they'll probably have to wait (and wait) for it as Upper Bann is usually always the last constituency to declare.
Doug Beattie (UUP)
Jonathan Buckley (DUP)
Colin Craig (WP)
Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP)
Tara Doyle (Alliance)
Roy Ferguson (TUV)
Dolores Kelly (SDLP)
Simon Lee (Green)
Carla Lockhart (DUP)
Ian Nickels (Cons)
John O'Dowd (SF)
Nuala Toman (SF)
2016 share of first preference vote:
Sinn Fein 24.9%
NI Labour 0.5%
Seats won in 2016
Sinn Fein 2