General Election

Constituency profile: South Antrim pits Ulster Unionist Remainer against DUP Brexiteer

Belfast International Airport is among the major employers in South Antrim. Picture by Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

STRETCHING from Mallusk on the edge of the Belfast metropolitan area to the western banks of Lough Neagh and north to Randalstown and Toome, South Antrim is a constituency roughly evenly split between the urban and rural.

It's an area with many big dairy farmers, a fair bit of industry and Belfast International Airport.

Well served by air, road and rail links, unemployment has traditionally been low in South Antrim and the number of benefits claimants comparatively small.

In the 2016 referendum, the constituency voted by a narrow majority of 557 to leave the EU.

While nothing is ever certain in politics, we are effectively guaranteed that whoever tops the poll here on December 12 will be a unionist. This is after all a constituency which once boasted the highest level of support for the Ulster Unionist Party anywhere in the north.

There was even a period up to the 1950s when the seat wasn't contested by an any other party.

In 1979, late Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux's majority of 38,868 was the highest across all Westminster constituencies and though his successor Clifford Forsythe never quite commanded the same level of support after boundary changes reduced its size, South Antrim remained very much a safe UUP seat.

However, the DUP belatedly began challenging its establishment rival when the incumbent's death forced a by-election in 2000.

Contesting the seat for the first time in 17 years, the DUP's William McCrea won with a majority of 822 only to see the seat regained on the UUP's behalf by David Burnside in the following June's general election.

This began what has been characterised as a 'tug of war' contest, which has seen the seat switch back and forth between the UUP and DUP no fewer than five times in the past 20 years.

The last Ulster Unionist to be victorious in South Antrim was Danny Kinahan, a politically moderate, former British soldier who ousted his Free P firebrand rival in 2015.

That result surprised many, though given the level of animosity for the sitting MP, who once shared a platform with notorious LVF killer Billy Wright, it shouldn't have been entirely unexpected.

In the 2017 Westminster election, the DUP's Paul Girvan took the seat back from Kinahan and the two are set to go head-to-head once again in an intra-unionist battle that pits a hard Brexiteer against a Remainer, who having reluctantly accepted the UK-wide outcome of the 2016 referendum is now deeply concerned about the consequences of Boris Johnson's withdrawal agreement.

Notably, the UUP's Stormont representative in South Antrim is the party's recently appointed leader Steve Aiken, who in what appears to be an acknowledgement that his colleague is likely to poll better, has opted to run against Sammy Wilson next door in East Antrim.

While Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney, also the party's Westminster candidate, topped the poll in South Antrim in the 2017 assembly election, nationalist votes in this constituency only really matter in a first-past-the-post contest when they are cast tactically and Kinahan's prospects may be dependent on how many non-unionist votes he can attract.

The SDLP is running a candidate in South Antrim and hasn't been entirely clear why it isn't stepping aside as it did in North Belfast and North Down, given the Ulster Unionist candidate's professed support for the EU.

Also running is John Blair, who succeeded former Alliance leader David Ford as the party's MLA in the constituency.

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CANDIDATES

John Blair (ALL)

Paul Girvan (DUP)

Declan Kearney (SF)

Danny Kinahan (UUP)

Roisin Lynch (SDLP)

2017 SHARE OF VOTE

DUP - 38.2%

UUP - 30.8%

SF - 18.1%

ALL - 7.4%

SDLP - 5.4%

Electorate: 68,244

Majority: 3,208

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General Election