Northern Ireland

Constituency Profile: North Down

Alliance defence of seat expected to be aided by split unionist vote

Bangor marina. Picture by Pacemaker
Bangor marina is in the heart of the North Down constituency. PICTURE: PACEMAKER

There are only two of the north’s 18 seats where there’s a potential run-off involving three candidates. North Down is one (the other is Lagan Valley).

The incumbent in North Down is Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry, defending the seat for the first time having taken it in 2019 with what was an eye-brow raising result, if not a complete shock.

His majority over second placed Alex Easton, then a DUP candidate but now an independent, was 2,968.

While geographically the eastern extremes of the neighbouring Strangford constituency is nearer, it’s fair to say that North Down is closest to England culturally. It has trains, the affluent Gold Coast and plenty of rugby and cricket clubs. The NI Conservatives candidate secured almost 2,000 votes at the last general election.

There are also pockets of deprivation and areas where paramilitaries still maintain an overbearing presence but on the whole it’s a relatively affluent, middle class constituency.

Historically North Down was as unionist a seat as you could find – in 1959, Ulster Unionist candidate George Currie recorded the highest ever share of the vote in a Westminster election with a whopping 98 per cent.

Lady Sylvia Hermon. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

These days it’s much more politically diverse though support for nationalist parties is negligible, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP together securing less than 4% of the popular vote in 2022′s assembly election.

In the five Westminster elections prior to Stephen Farry’s victory, Lady Sylvia Hermon topped the poll, twice as an Ulster Unionist and the latter three times as an independent. Her decision not to defend the seat in 2019 created an electoral vacuum for unionism and was key in enabling Alliance’s victory, as was the decision of other Remain-supporting parties to step aside.

There are some within political unionism who argue that there should be a concerted effort to unseat the Alliance deputy leader by agreeing on a single challenger but the Ulster Unionists’ decision in January to announce the candidacy of former British Army colonel Tim Collins was effectively a unilateral bid to put him forward as the single unionist candidate.

However, the DUP has instead thrown its weight behind Mr Easton, who while an independent MLA is still on speaking terms with his former colleagues.

Mr Collins’s military credentials and mildly plummy tones may resonate with some ‘little Englanders’ in North Down yet he has shown himself to be politically naive and something of an over-confident loose canon.

Mr Easton is arguably at the other end of the scale – a local man of the people with a reputation as an effective constituency worker. Notably, he is endorsed by both DUP and TUV, both of which aren’t on the ballot paper.

The intra-unionist contest has been messy and increasingly acrimonious, which can only be good news for Stephen Farry.

It’s difficult to see how one of the two unionist candidates can completely eclipse the other, so they are effectively cancelling each other out, a situation reflected by the bookies, which have the Alliance candidate as odds-on favourite to win.

North Down
North Down