General election: SDLP in South Down may be unseated by SF
Sinn Fein taking the Mourne country Westminster seat would have been a mountain too high for the republican party to climb in past years.
However, a surge in republican support at the last Assembly election has made the SDLP look vulnerable.
Margaret Ritchie was returned as MP for South Down in 2015 – the seat held by party colleague Eddie McGrady from 1987 until his retirement in 2010 – with a majority of almost 6,000 over Sinn Fein rival Chris Hazzard.
But Sinn Fein polled exceptionally well in March capturing 38.6% of the vote (compared to 28.7% in 2015’s Westminster election).
The pair are going head-to-head again with Hazzard now the bookies’ favourite to become an abstentionist MP.
If unionist voters have been ‘lending’ votes to the SDLP to keep Sinn Fein out then Ritchie needs them now more than ever – despite rejecting the idea in her 2015 victory speech.
“Let us be very clear that the SDLP vote increased and that we have a solid majority now in South Down without any votes being lent to us,” told jubilant supporters. “So, let’s lose that myth now.”
The selection of newcomer Diane Forsythe to contest the seat for the DUP – rather than veteran Jim Wells – has been one of the main talking point among unionists.
The 32-year-old accountant will be up against UUP man Harold McKee who lost his Assembly seat in March after just 10 months in office.
McKee was 500 votes ahead of the DUP candidate in 2015 (with 3,964 votes) but there could be 3,000-plus unionist votes available with ex-Ukip-and-TUV man Henry Reilly not fighting this time.
The Alliance candidate (Patrick Brown) shocked many at the last Assembly election when he polled stronger than the Ulster Unionist candidate (4,535 to 4,172) – undoubtedly benefitting from some of the moderate unionist votes previously going to John McCallister.
Andrew McMurray has been selected by Alliance and will be hoping the upward trend continues.
Candidates for 2017:
• Diane Forsythe, DUP
• Chris Hazzard, Sinn Féin
• Harold McKee, UUP,
• Andrew McMurray, Alliance
• Margaret Ritchie, SDLP
Margaret Ritchie (SDLP): 18,077 (42.3%)
C Hazzard (SF): 12,186 (28.5%)
H McKee (UUP): 3,964 (9.3%)
J Wells (DUP): 3,486 (8.2%)
Henry Reilly (UKIP): 3,044 (7.1%)
M Todd (Alliance): 1,622 (3.8%)
F Buchan (Cons.): 318 (0.7%)
Turnout: 43,000 (57.2%)
Combined unionist vote: 25.3%
Margaret Ritchie (SDLP): 20,648 (48.5%)
C Ruane (SF): 12,236 (28.7%)
J Wells (DUP): 3,645 (8.6%)
J McCallister (Ulster Cons. and Unionists): 3,093 (7.3%)
I McConnell (TUV):1,506 (3.5%)
C Enright (Green): 901 (2.1%)
D Griffin (Alliance): 560 (1.3%)
Turnout: 42,840 (60.5%)
Combined unionist vote: 19.4%