Northern Ireland

Constituency Profile: Lagan Valley

Having closed the gap on the DUP in 2019 Alliance may be further helped this time around by a three-way split in the unionist vote

The DUP's Gregory Campbell and Jeffery Donaldson at Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt, Co Derry as counting begins Westminster election. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire 
Sir Jeffery Donaldson, who is facing sex abuse charges, will not be contesting the election. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA

Lagan Valley was once justifiably regarded as the quintessential safe unionist seat. In its 41-year history the constituency has been represented by just two leading unionist figures, initially the then Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux and then by his protégée Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who was first returned to Westminster’s green benches in 1997.

The Co Down-born former UDR corporal won the seat twice as an Ulster Unionist before defecting to the DUP in 2003. In six of the seven general elections the former DUP leader has contested in Lagan Valley, his majority never dipped below 10,000, until 2019 when the Alliance surge helped Sorcha Eastwood narrow the gap to less than 7,000.

The sudden demise of Sir Jeffrey’s political career is well documented, and while not strictly speaking a political controversy, it’s a development that has implications for this election.

Before his arrest in March for historical sex charges, the former DUP leader was a cert to contest the seat, despite previously signalling a desire to be Stormont first minister and therefore an MLA.

Sir Jeffrey, whose next court appearance is on the eve of polling day, commanded a significant personal vote in the constituency, securing close to a quarter of the popular vote in 2022′s assembly election.

The two obvious replacement candidates for the DUP – Emma Little-Pengelly and Paul Givan – are both members of the Stormont executive and have therefore either spurned the opportunity to run for Westminster or been deliberately overlooked by party officers.

The task of defending the seat for the DUP has fallen to Jonathan Buckley, an MLA for the neighbouring Upper Bann constituency. In choosing Mr Buckley, an opponent of the so-called Donaldson Deal, the DUP looks like it’s aiming to appease those voters who may be inclined to register their anti-protocol sentiment by voting for the TUV’s Lorna Smyth, who while not in serious contention for the seat could poll enough to harm her party’s larger unionist rival.

Yet there’s also a danger that by choosing someone perceived as a more hard line candidate, softer unionist voters may prefer Ulster Unionist deputy leader Robbie Butler, who last time around came in third place with 8,606 votes, more than 5,500 votes behind second placed Sorcha Eastwood.

The Alliance MLA is running again on July 4 and is regarded as a serious challenger to the DUP, especially under the difficult circumstances in which it finds itself.

She’s young, confident and has a strong media profile. The Alliance surge of five years ago looks to have plateaued but with no Donaldson factor, coupled with a unionist vote split three ways, Ms Eastwood’s prospects are much greater than 2019. She may also benefit from tactical votes from nationalists keen to give the DUP a bloody nose, especially as Sinn Féin isn’t running.

Nobody likes to be described as a paper candidate but in this three-horse race, the Green’s Patricia Denvir and SDLP’s Simon Lee are mere bit players in what promises to be a must-watch Lagan Valley drama.

Lagan Valley
Lagan Valley