Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas WhyteNorth Down
covers the whole of the Borough of North Down, and 3 of 21 wards of Ards Borough. A heavily urbanised borough, the bulk of the electorate are in Bangor, Northern Ireland's third largest settlement after Belfast and Derry. North Down also includes Holywood, the 'Gold Coast' which stretches between Cultra and Crawfordsburn, Conlig, Groomsport, Donaghadee and Millisle. The tiny village of Craigantlet, nestled up in the hills between Holywood and Newtownards, is the only inland population centre. The vast bulk of the constituency lies within statisticians' Belfast Urban Area.
When most people think North Down, they think yachts, golf and money. Although the stereotype is a overblown, it isn't entirely unrealistic. By every measure, North Down is the wealthiest constituency in Northern Ireland.
Even many of the constituency's poorer areas, like the Kilcooley Estate in Bangor and the big Housing Executive Estates in Donaghadee lie outside the poorest fifth in Northern Ireland. The exceptions are the Breezemount Estate on the southern fringe of Bangor, always something of a dumping ground, and the multiple-occupation houses in the Centre of Bangor. This latter area is Northern Ireland's best example of 'Costa del Dole', with many living quite a marginal existence in small, substandard, flat conversions and even single bed-sitting rooms.
However, the dominant social stratum in North Down is prosperous, sometimes very prosperous indeed. Starting at along the Bangor Road in Holywood, the entire coast almost as far as Bangor Town Centre is in the wealthiest 10% of areas in Northern Ireland. So is most of Balllyholme, as are most of the sprawling private estates along the Donaghadee Road and the new-ish private estates in Clandeboye.
The fertility rate is lower than average, although not exceptionally so (1.67 against 1.80), and the overall age pyramid leans towards the older age groups, although again not to the extent that people might think. Although there are parts of Bangor where retired people dominate, like Carnalea, there are also areas, particularly in the sprawling new developments on the eastern side of Bangor, where young families are the commonest type of household. The average age of the population is the highest in Northern Ireland, probably reflecting the later age at which people form families here.
Unsurprisingly, school attainment and the level of academic qualifications are significantly higher than the Northern Ireland average. So is the proportion of marriages solemnised at a registry office, probably reflecting a secular and less traditional population.
After East Belfast, North Down is the second most Protestant constituency (82% Protestant, 12% Catholic). It also is the constituency with the largest number of people not attributable by the census takers to either Northern Ireland community (6.8%, beating South Belfast by a whisker). This reflects the fact that many people in North Down were raised outside Northern Ireland.
Nowhere is the Catholic population near a majority, but it is concentrated in Holywood (23%) and around the Brusnwick Road in West Bangor (38%). It averages 11% across Bangor and tends to be slightly higher on the western side of the town than the eastern side. Donghadee is overwhelmingly Protestant (5% Catholic), and Millisle even more so (3%).
Unsurprisingly, the net result of this is a constituency that has historically been dominated by Unionism but with a tendency towards free thinking. However, Nicholas Whyte's figures show that last time North Down was a little more conformist than normal
, with two seats each for the Ulster Unionists and DUP, Bob McCartney holding one for the UKUP and one going to Alliance. The DUP picked up two seats in 2003, one from the Ulster Unionists, the other being the seat the Women's Coalition won from nowhere in 1998.
This constituency is incredibly
hard to call, with at least two seats wide open, and as many as six candidates with a fighting chance of one of those seats. At an individual level, no personality is so dominant here, even Leslie Cree, that they can call themselves safe. Indeed, the 2003 count went to 12 stages before anyone was elected last time.
So, as usual, let's start with the easiest ones to call. After 1998, the SDLP started fighting elections here for the first time in a long time, and Sinn Féin for the first time in the modern era. The SDLP vote peaked at 5.4% way back in 1998 and has gone into reverse since, while the SF vote is derisory, having yet to break the 1% mark. I can't see either of these figures advancing much, and the main role of the Nationalist parties in North Down this time will be to supply transfers for Alliance and the Greens.
At the other end of the political spectrum, it's interesting to note that the combined DUP plus UKUP vote has been static at 34-36% since the 2001 General Election. I suspect there has been migration both into and out of that camp since, with liberals who used to think Bob was one of them moving out and sceptical Ulster Unionists coming in. With Peter Weir's vote also at 35.1% even in the DUP's annus mirabilis
of 2005, I'd be inclined to think that represented a ceiling on the DUP-UKUP camp's vote here. The local elections of 2005 also produced a 34.3% vote for the DUP, so we can call two safe seats for the DUP and their third candidate will have a fighting chance, especially in the melee that tends to transpire at the end of North Down counts.
Sitting Assembly members Peter Weir and Alex Easton are running again and will be joined by Alan Graham, an old DUP stalwart who has been standing for council elections in West Bangor, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, since 1977. Last time, superb vote mangement by the DUP saw them turn just 1.6 quotas into 2 seats, so it would be wrong to count them out for a third seat this time. If one candidate does lose out, then it's hard to make a call as to which it will be.
When I referred to the DUP-UKUP camp above, I didn't mention the 'minor detail' that Bob and the DUP are no longer a camp, having as they do divergent views on the St. Andrews Agreement. Before this split, Bob was in real trouble here, polling just 0.77 quotas and not even managing to get half his UKUP running mate's transfers. Before the DUP-Sinn Féin deal, I would have called him for dead. There must be some opposition to the deal, however, and as Bob has a local base and a network of local supporters that he hasn't managed to offend yet, so he must be in pole position to capitalise on it.
However, contacts in North Down have said that Bob is all but invisible on the ground, and there shouldn't be the same base for anti-St. Andrews campaigners to work from here as in places like North Antrim or even Strangford. Political realignment may have given Bob a fighting chance, but he doesn't seem to be fighting terribly hard. He should be in the mix for the last seat, but I wouldn't rate his chances as much higher than that.
As far as the Ulster Unionists go, their vote has jumped up and down between 23% and 56% since the dawn of the millennium. In 1998, they won three seats here on less than 2.3 quotas through object vote management. However they seem to have forgotten that lesson since, despite having a competent local practitioner of the art in Councillor Jim McKerrow; better vote management would have seen Diane Peacocke just sneak the last seat ahead of the DUP's Alex Easton last time, and there's little evidence that they're trying hard this time.
On the same day that Sylvia Hermon polled over 50% in 2005's Westminster election, her colleagues in the local poll secured only 23%. The good news is that this demonstrates the way that the UUP are capable of pulling in transfers from all over the place in North Down; the bad news is that it shows how soft their vote is. With a base of 32% in the 2003 elections, it's hard not to call them for two safe seats, which probably belong to sitting two-term MLA Alan McFarland and single term MLA, poll topper and long serving councillor, Leslie Cree. West Bangor Councillor Marion Smith who is, amazingly, the only female UUP candidate anywhere
in these elections must also have a fighting chance for that final seat.
It's another sign of the times that we can't call Alliance as having a safe seat here, either. Their vote dropped to just 8.6% last time, although their ability to pull in transfers and the general fragmentation of the vote in North Down actually saw Eileen Bell elected second, which indicates their seat isn't anything like as vulnerable as some think. Bell has stood down and will be replaced by four-term Bangor Abbey councillor, Stephen Farry. Farry doesn't have the charisma of David Alderdice, but is competent and very bright indeed. The Marine Parade redevelopment issue has kept his profile high. Alliance's vote came back up to 15.4% in the 2005 locals despite serious competition from the Greens and SDLP for the first time. However, that uptick was less pronounced than in other parts of Northern Ireland and they cannot take their seat for granted. However, they can expect a solid transfer from the SDLP, and while I'll put them in the melee for the final two seats, they are definitely at the front of that particular scrum and should be safe barring a disaster.
The Greens should also benefit from a hefty transfer from the SDLP. In Brian Wilson, first elected as a North Down councillor for Alliance in West Bangor in 1981, and later a high profile Independent, they have a candidate with a huge personal vote, who managed to get elected under the Green label in West Bangor with almost a fifth of the vote in 2005. His own vote as an Independent in the 2003 elections plus that of the Green Party gives him a base of 0.47 quotas, and a likely heavy transfer from the nationalist parties should turn that into two-thirds of a quota or so, even discounting other transfers that will come in. That should be enough to see him elected given his likely ability to attract transfers, so again, I'll place him in that scrum in the end. If Alliance do well and Farry is elected or close to being elected on the first count, he will walk it as long as he polls one vote more than the SDLP plus SF combined.
I'm slightly hesitant to call it outright for Wilson, partly because a serious Green candidature is something of an unknown quantity in Northern Ireland, partly because I've heard that the Greens are spreading themselves a little rather than throwing everything at North and South Down. So I'll place him towards the front of that scrum at the end, just behind Alliance.
The Tories are the third serious non-communal party here, and they are
throwing the kitchen sink at North Down. In James Leslie they have a candidate who might lack an established local base, but who has held ministerial office and has real ability. In election after election, Tory transfer patterns indicate they take most of their votes from the UUP, so if there is a collapse in the UUP vote, they are in with a chance, but I'm leaning against them at this stage. Their glory days in North Down were almost two decades ago now - even the councillors who hung on in 1993 were mostly former members of various Unionist parties who had built up their political base before defecting. Their share of the vote in both 2005 elections was derisory. I'll put them in the scrum for the final seat, but right at the back of it.
The best performing of the remaining four candidates will probably be Alan Chambers, and Independent Unionist councillor with a solid base in Groomsport who seems to run in every election in North Down these days. His vote, while solid enough for a council seat, seems to be in gentle decline, and I suspect he'll just drop down into triple figures this time.
Chris Carter is another Independent who seems to stand for every election in North Down. He is a taxi driver who lives in Bangor town centre and has, how shall I put it, a less substantial programmatic and electoral base than Chambers. He came last with 109 votes in 2003, an improvement on his 1998 performance of 72 votes. He is perhaps best known for, as Nicholas Whyte says, "his A3 posters printed in white-on-black ten-point lettering, posted twelve feet up a Bangor lamp-post, or better yet fixed firmly to the central reservation of the main road between Belfast and Bangor, past which motorists would travel at a minimum of 55 miles per hour."
Brian Rowan, BBC Northern Ireland's former security editor is the third independent. Adrian Eastwood said on Slugger Radio the other night that he expected him to poll well, and he's certainly had some coverage on the regional media. However, I also expect that Adrian Eastwood knows Rowan from chapel in Holywood, and I suspect that's where most of his votes will come from... people who know him from chapel in Holywood.
There's a story doing the rounds that Rowan was given a kind of deathbed benediction by David Ervine to take on his mantle. Which is kind of odd given that the PUP are fielding a candidate here in Elaine Martin from the Kilcooley Estate. However, with only 1% of the vote last time and a base in freefall, she'll be lucky to get into triple figures, unless she can capture a local Kilcooley vote that might propel her to four or five hundred. However, I note that she is the third PUP candidate in this election, and a party needs to field three candidates to get an election broadcast, which I suspect was the object of the excercise.
I really don't want to call this constituency. I started doing this profile thinking 2 each DUP and UUP, 1 Alliance and probably Bob. As I've been doing it, I've become more sceptical about Bob and more convinced of Brian Wilson's chances. After 2 Ulster Unionists and 2 DUP, I reckon in order of likelihood, the final scrum runs something like Alliance, Wilson, Bob McCartney, DUP 3, Marion Smith and the Tories bringing up the rear. With a combined non-aligned and Nationalist vote just five hundred votes short of two quotas last time, to my surprise I'm now inclined to think Alliance and the Greens can make it. But that is going to be one hell of a scrum at the end, and nothing is certain. And I still might change my mind before polling day.
2003 vote - UUP 32.1%/2.24Q, DUP 23.5%/1.64Q, UKUP 11.6%/0.81Q, Alliance 8.6%/0.60Q, SDLP 4.9%/0.34Q, Womens' Coalition 3.8%/0.27Q, Green 2.4%/0.17Q, Cons 1.6%/0.11Q, Oth U 5.9%/0.41Q, Other 4.7%/0.33Q.
Candidates - UUP: Leslie CREE*, Alan McFARLANE*, Marion SMITH. DUP: Alex EASTON*, Alan GRAHAM, Peter WEIR*. UKUP: Bob McCARTNEY*. Alliance: Stephen FARRY. SDLP: Liam LOGAN. Green: Brian WILSON. Cons: James LESLIE. PUP: Elaine MARTIN. SF: Deaglan PAGE. Independents: Chris CARTER, Alan CHAMBERS, Brian ROWAN. (*=Sitting MLA)Prediction: 2 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 Alliance, 1 Green.