North Antrim: TUV may make gains in DUP stronghold
LAST year's rather uneventful elections caused few surprises bar the rise of People Before Profit in west Belfast and Derry. But at the other end of the political spectrum, slower changes were happening within unionism in north Antrim
The mainly rural constituency has long been a DUP stronghold with three sitting MLAs including former finance minister Mervyn Storey.
But at least one DUP seat is under serious threat from the TUV. Party leader Jim Allister was the first to be re-elected last year and appears to have lost none of his popularity.
Before the Ulster Unionist/SDLP opposition was formed last year, Mr Allister functioned as a thorn in the side of the executive and in recent months has been the DUP's harshest critic over the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal - set to cost taxpayers up to £490 million.
Indeed the constituency may be the key litmus test of the DUP's popularity under Arlene Foster. North Antrim is home to several named RHI beneficiaries, including Ballymoney farmer Tom Forgrave, poultry chairman of the Ulster Farmers' Union, who has six wood-pellet boilers for his business.
Mr Storey himself is an elder in Ballymoney's Hebron Free Presbyterian Church which stands to receive £270,000 over 20 years from the scheme. The DUP MLA has already said he had no involvement in the church's application. However his colleague Philip Logan, who was the last DUP MLA to be elected in May, could be vulnerable to a charge from the TUV's Timothy Gaston, provided Mr Allister's high profile does not overshadow his colleague.
Mr Allister's plans to "drain the swamp", a slogan unfortunately borrowed from US President Donald Trump, are likely to chime with hardline unionist voters who remain exceptionally uncomfortable with any power-sharing agreement with Sinn Féin.
With the number of seats in every constituency to be reduced from six to five, Ulster Unionist veteran Robin Swann could fall victim to a greater split in the unionist vote. His fall, however, could be Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan's gain.
Mr McGuigan's predecessor Daithí McKay clinched the sixth seat at the May elections but was forced to step down in December amid allegations of 'coaching' at a Stormont inquiry on Nama.
Mr McKay, loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, and Sinn Féin activist Thomas O'Hara have since been reported to the Public Prosecution Service over claims Mr Bryson had been coached before he gave evidence to the assembly's finance committee in 2015.
The row caused a dispute within Sinn Féin in North Antrim, with councillor Paul Maguire and more than a dozen activists quitting the party in protest at Mr McKay's treatment.
The row is unlikely to affect the party too badly at the polls although former Sinn Féin Ballymena councillor Monica Digney, now standing as an independent, may cost Mr McGuigan some of his support, leaving the race for the fifth seat much tighter than he would wish.
Jim Allister (TUV)
Timothy Gaston (TUV)
Paul Frew (DUP)
Philip Logan (DUP)
Mervyn Storey (DUP)
Connor Duncan (SDLP)
Philip McGuigan (SF)
Mark Bailey (Greens)
Monica Digney (Ind)
Adam McBride (Ind)
Patricia O'Lynn (All)
Robin Swann (UUP)
2016 share of first preference vote:
Seats won in 2016: