Northern Ireland news

North Down: Litmus test for DUP in unionist stronghold as UUP look to relive former glories

Bangor Marina is at the heart of the North Down constituency. Picture by Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

IT is in places such as North Down that the real signs of whether or not the DUP are feeling the pressure from the electorate over the Renewable Heat Incentive debacle will become clear.

Since 2003, the DUP have conquered assembly elections in much the same way that Manchester United used to dominate English football under Sir Alex Ferguson.

The Ulster Unionists last won two seats in 2007 and any sense of disillusionment from DUP voters could lead to the unionist tables being turned.

Running from Belfast Lough on the outskirts of the city and taking in part of the Ards Peninsula, the affluent constituency is predominantly unionist, having never elected a nationalist MLA.

In the past two elections, the DUP has returned three, with the Ulster Unionists, Greens and Alliance each picking up the remaining seats.

With the backing of 13,000 first preference votes last May and excellent vote management ensuring all of its candidates got across the line, the DUP was in such bullish form that it used a victory speech to warn the area's MP, independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon, that she was being "put on notice".

The DUP has already lost one MLA before any votes have been cast for the reduced five seat constituency, with its decision to move education minister Peter Weir to Strangford to fight off the challenge from suspended party member Jonathan Bell.

Mr Weir looked to be in the weakest position as he had the lowest first preference vote of the DUP's three candidates last May, with Alex Easton comfortably topping the poll and Gordon Dunne also elected.

However, the UUP has also reduced its number of candidates from three to two, having only secured one seat last year despite a five per cent increase in its vote from 2011.

Alan Chambers, the sitting MLA, will stand alongside William Cudworth, who was previously a TUV candidate in the Westminster election in 2015.

The division of votes previously attributed to former Green Brian Wilson, who secured more than 1,400 first preference ballots as an independent candidate in May but who is not standing again, may prove decisive.

Both the SDLP and Sinn Féin performed dismally last year, with a combined first preference total of less than four figures and the interest will lie in where their transfers go.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew will be confident of finishing behind the DUP, after a strong second place showing in May, when he doubled his share of the vote from 2011.

The Alliance Party has reduced its expectations by targeting a successful defence of the seat currently held by former employment minister Stephen Farry.

He secured the lowest first preference vote of the six candidates elected last May but should benefits from votes cast for Andrew Muir, a former mayor of North Down who polled strongly for Alliance last year but who will not run in this election.

Conservative Frank Shivers and three independents make up the 12 candidates contesting the North Down election.

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Candidates:

Gordon Dunne (DUP)

Alex Easton (DUP)

Alan Chambers (UUP)

William Cudworth (UUP)

Frank Shivers (Cons)

Stephen Farry (Alliance)

Steven Agnew (Green)

Chris Carter (Ind)

Melanie Kennedy (Ind)

Gavan Reynolds (Ind)

Caoimhe McNeill (SDLP)

Kieran Maxwell (SF)

2016 share of first preference vote:

DUP 41.7%

Alliance 16.8%

UUP 15.5%

Green 12.7%

UKIP 2.1%

TUV 1.9%

SDLP 1.3%

SF 1.0%

Independents and others 7%

Seats won in 2016:

DUP 3

Alliance 1

Greens 1

UUP 1

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