Candidates face off in election hotseat

On a hot sunny morning the next MP for North Down was meeting supporters among the shoppers in Bangor’s weekly market.

On a hot sunny morning the next MP for North Down was meeting supporters among the shoppers in Bangor’s weekly market.

It is accepted by all that despite there being six candidates, only two have a chance of victory - with both convinced they will win the laurels.

UK Unionist Party candidate Bob McCartney is fighting to make it three times in a row, Ulster Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon is battling to unseat him.

It is a straight fight between McCartney’s anti-Good Friday Agreement stance and the Ulster Unionists pro-Agreement stand.

The contestants came face to face amid the market stalls and bag-laden shoppers in the Co Down town as each sought out support.

Their eyes met, Mr McCartney seemed ready for an exchange, but Lady Sylvia put her head down and strode on.

Her husband, retired former RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon, had a few words with the opposition and accepted a McCartney election leaflet.

He told his wife he would ‘‘put it on the wall upside down and throw darts at it’’.

Lady Sylvia is bidding to return the constituency to the Ulster Unionist fold from which it was taken in 1977 when Sir James Kilfedder opted out, complaining Enoch Powell was dictating party policy.

Despite repeated attempts the Ulster Unionists were unable to unseat Kilfedder at elections until his death in 1995 and failed to stop Bob McCartney winning the seat at the ensuing by-election or 1997 General Election.

This time around the UUP are desperate to win the seat back and show support in the largely middle-class Co Down constituency is behind leader David Trimble, the Agreement and Mr Trimble’s decision to go into government with Sinn Fein without any IRA weapons decommissioning.

It is a stance upon which he has hung his political career - and the future of his party.

Lady Sylvia was given what could be a substantial boost when the Alliance Party candidate Dr Stephen Farry made a late withdrawal from the race and urged party supporters to vote Ulster Unionist.

Pulling out he said: ‘‘North Down is a pro-Agreement constituency, but with an anti-Agreement MP elected on a minority vote.

Mr McCartney won the seat with a majority of 1,449 over an Ulster Unionist candidate in 1997 and the theory goes that with Alliance support - they took 7,554 votes in 1997 - Lady Sylvia should be home free.

Mr McCartney does not see it that way.

‘‘What the Alliance Party have done, this cross-community party, is say to their voters ‘Go back to your tribe’.

‘‘Yes voters in Alliance will be canvassed heavily by the SDLP who are in a province-wide contest with Sinn Fein for the largest vote in Northern Ireland.’’

Confident of victory, he said: ‘‘What has the Ulster Unionist candidate to offer. She has no experience whatsoever. She has only been in the Ulster Unionist Party for a little over a year. She has never knocked on a door - why should I be concerned?’’

But Lady Sylvia, the sun glinting off her blonde hair and single strand of pearls, exuded confidence.

She said: ‘‘I am very confident - unstoppable. People want a fresh, positive approach in North Down. People want a pro-Agreement candidate to be there for them and they want a change.

She takes the occasional brick-bat in her stride. ‘‘Your party voted to put armed men in government,’’ shouted by a heckler did not remove the composed smile from her face.

Lady Sylvia, chairman of the Ulster Unionist constituency association in North Down, is fulsome in her gratitude to the Alliance Party candidate for pulling out of the race.

She said it was a ‘‘very good decision, a very generous decision’’.

She said she had detected a worry among Alliance voters she had met prior to Dr Farry withdrawing from the race that while they were loyal to the party, they didn’t want to ‘‘waste their vote’’ in the upcoming contest.

The withdrawal ‘‘makes it easier for Alliance voters to vote for me’’.

On June 8 she will know whether they did and if she has become the first woman to represent the constituency at Westminster since the mid 1950s when another Lady - Lady Fisher - was MP.

It could have been very different in North Down. The party association - of which Lady Hermon is chairman - had chosen Peter Weir as their candidate.

But he was deselected after losing the UUP whip in the Assembly for constantly siding with the anti-Agreement Democratic Unionists.

Candidates contesting the election are: Outgoing MP Robert McCartney (UKUP); Lady Sylvia Hermon (UUP); Marietta Farrell (SDLP); Eamon McComvery (Sinn Fein); Julian Robertson (Conservative) and Chris Carter (Independent).

At the 1997 General Election the result was: R. McCartney (UKUP) elected

with 12,817 votes; A. McFarland (UUP) 11,368; Sir O. Napier (Alliance) 7,554; L. Fee (Con) 1,810; M. Farrell (SDLP) 1,602; J. Morrice (NIWC) 1,240; T. Mullins, (NLP) 108; R. Mooney (NIP) 57. The UKUP majority was 1,449.

At the 1998 Assembly election the UUP (with three candidates) gained 12,147 first preference votes; UKUP (2) 8,361; Alliance (2) 5,368; DUP (2) 2,571; SDLP (1) 2048; Ulster Independence (1) 1,382; PUP (1) 1,376; Indep Wilson (1) 1,327; Con (1) 337; UDP (1) 265; Labour (1) 212; Ulster Independent V Carter (1) 72; Natural Law (1) 39.

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