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Analysis 4 swing seats could shape North’s future

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

What Duke Ellington has said about jazz can also be said about the general election battle raging in Northern Ireland and due to be decided Thursday, June 7: it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

In this case, the swing refers to the potential for at least four and as many as seven seats to change hands — an unusually high number for Northern Ireland. As a rule, Westminster elections there do not see many seats change hands, and it used to be that a seat in parliament was a job for life.

But the first British general election of the new millennium seems set to break that traditional pattern and at same time mark a realignment in Northern Irish politics.

Eleven of the 18 seats are widely regarded as safe, and they include those held by all the party leaders, John Hume (SDLP), the Rev. Ian Paisley (DUP), Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein), and David Trimble (UUP). In the seven where there is swing potential, by the last week of the campaign still no consensus had emerged among observers as to the direction the swing might go. The bad news for Trimble is that all but two are held by the UUP.

Four of the seven swing seats are judged most likely to change hands. They include:

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€ West Tyrone, where observers believe that either Brid Rodgers (SDLP) or Sinn Fein’s Pat Doherty will oust Willie Thompson. By the last week of the election, it was still neck and neck between the two nationalist candidates, but private polling by Unionists pointed to a Rodgers victory.

€ Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Ken Maginnis’s old seat, which most likely will go to either Michele Gildernew (Sinn Fein) or the SDLP’s Tommy Gallagher. Gildernew is being given the nod by some observers, who credited her with running the better campaign.

€ North Belfast, where the DUP candidate, Nigel Dodds, is the favorite to score a victory over Cecil Walker, who "imploded," in the words of one observer during a televised debate.

€ North Down, where a change is expected in the seat held by the anti-agreement UK Unionist Party’s Bob McCartney. He is defending a razor-thin majority against a strong challenge from the UUP’s Sylvia Hermon, wife of former RUC Chief Constable Jack Hermon.

If the UUP wins in North Down, it would be doubly sweet for David Trimble. Hermon was selected only after Trimble supporters moved to have an anti-agreement UUP candidate, Peter Weir, deselected. A victory for Hermon would help shore up Trimble’s position within his own party while at the same time removing one of the agreement’s most outspoken critics.

Trimble may well have need of such a victory if the more pessimistic predictions about the UUP’s dwindling support come true.

In Strangford, the party’s David McNarry is facing a strong challenge from the DUP’s Iris Robinson.

In East Londonderry, Willie Ross might well loose to the DUP’s Gregory Campbell, who is a minister in the devolved government.

South Antrim was a safe UUP constituency until last September, when Willie McCrea took it for the DUP. Apathy among moderate Unionists was said to have been the cause of the UUP’s loss. It is predicted that a strong turnout would see it revert to the UUP. But the fact that the UUP candidate, David Burnside, who was beaten by McCrea last year, is anti-agreement might again discourage moderate Unionists from voting and ensure the seat remains with the DUP.

This means that in the worst-case scenario for Trimble, the UUP could be left with only four seats at Westminster. However, if the UUP wins North Down, successfully holds Fermanagh-South Tyrone and/or East Londonderry, and wins back South Antrim, Trimble would be in a strong position indeed to carry forward the banner of the Good Friday agreement.

The most likely result for nationalism will be an even split between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, with three seats each at Westminster. Sinn Fein would then be in a much stronger position at the next general election in four or five years to deliver the coup de grace, when the SDLP’s aging leadership will be in their 70s and ready for retirement.

Indeed, some of the party’s younger membership believe the time for that retirement has already passed.

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