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Strangford is one of the five constituencies that form a ring around Belfast. Largely suburban with a significant rural element, it comprises 20 of 23 wards from Ards Borough Council, 8 of 23 wards from Castlereagh and 3 wards from Down.

Newtownards is the largest town in the constituency. Dundonald and Carryduff are part of Belfast's built-up area, and very much in the orbit of the City. South of Newtownards lie Comber, Killynchy, Killyleagh, Ballygowan and Saintfield, all in the transition from being country market towns to Belfast dormitories. Finally, the Ards Peninsula adds a significant component to the electorate.



This is a largely comfortable, suburban, area and the bulk of local farmers have traditionally been prosperous. Depending on the measure, Strangford is the second or third least deprived constituency. The birth rate is marginally lower (fertility 1.70 as opposed to 1.80) and the population marginally older than the NI average; but only marginally so. Many young families are still moving into this area, with some very large private housing developments seemingly permanently under construction.

Only one little pocket, the West Winds Estate in Newtownards, is among the poorest fifth of Northern Ireland communities, an important government benchmark, although Ballybeen in Dundonald just misses. Newtownards and Comber are socially mixed towns, but with the exception of West Winds, their working-class areas tend to lie only very slightly behind Northern Ireland economic averages, and their leafier lanes are very wealthy indeed. Moving to the rural west of the constituency, including Saintfield and Killynchy, almost every census area is in the least deprived 20% in Northern Ireland, and some of the rural areas are very wealthy indeed. Carryduff is a solidly middle-class residential suburb with exceptionally low levels of deprivation. Dundonald is rather more mixed, although it too has large scale private developments of almost universal prosperity nestling beside the estates.

The one real exception in this part of the constituency is the town of Killyleagh, with a slightly higher than average level of deprivation.

The Ards Peninsula, while hardly a nest of city-style crime and poverty, doesn't quite match this level of prosperity. Rural areas tend to be around or a smidgen less deprived than the NI average, while the four main villages - Portaferry, Portavogie, Kircubbin and Ballywalter - are a little bit more deprived than the NI average. But this is not North or West Belfast. Almost universally across the constituency, school results, levels of ill health and benefits claims are around or significantly better than the Northern Ireland average.

Overall, this is the third most Protestant constituency (80% Protestant, 15% Catholic). Unusually large swathes of this constituency have virtually no Catholic population. In a swathe from Killynchy through Comber and up to Dundonald it does not exceed 5%, and the same is true in the Lower Ards. In Newtownards, the Catholic population is 8%, and spread fairly evenly around the town except for almost entirely Protestant West Winds. In Ballygowan it is 9%, but significantly higher in the rather intriguing little community of Carrickmannon nearby. But the bulk of the Catholic population clusters around the fringe of the constituency - in Saintfield (24%), Killyleagh (38%), Carryduff (46%), and particularly south of the invisible line that crosses the Ards Peninsula somewhere between Portavogie and Kircubbin, the result of some 17th Century pattern of settlement. The Catholic population is less than 3% in Portavogie, 23% in the rural area around it, 57% in the rural area around Kircubbin, 68% in Kircubbin itself, 82% in the rural area around Portaferry and 89% in Portaferry town.

In 2003, Strangford returned 3 DUP, 2 UUP and 1 Alliance member. The only change in seats was, in common with so many other areas, the DUP pick up of the seat the UKUP won in 1998, but Nicholas Whyte's figures show what a roaring triumph this election was for the DUP in Strangford. They polled well over three quotas and saw a massive 93% transfer rate from Iris Robinson to her running mates. At the end of the count, Alliance hung on ahead of the SDLP by 291 votes for the final seat.

This time, the SDLP are once more making a serious effort to take the Alliance seat, while the DUP are running four candidates in what must be their best chance of taking four seats anywhere.

Let's start our tour of the parties by looking at that contest between Alliance and the SDLP. The SDLP have come agonisingly close here twice in a row - in 1998, they were even closer than in 2003, with Danny McCarthy (then of the SDLP) running Cedric Wilson (then of the UKUP) within only 160 votes with an undistributed Alliance surplus which would have made the result even closer. The SDLP are confident this time that Joe Boyle, a Portaferry chip shop owner, will take a seat on the back of a growing Catholic population. The SDLP are having the most serious attempt at a gain here that I can remember.

I'm not entirely convinced. The SDLP's best ever result here was way back in 1998, when they polled 9.0%, and they've been taking two steps back for one step forward since. Although they remain vastly outpolled by the SDLP, Sinn Féin's Dermot Kennedy has seen his vote steadily rise.

Secondly, in the 2005 general election, the total nationalist vote slipped back to its lowest level since 1997 here, at 9.3%. It might be argued that there was some tactical voting at work, but the Nationalist vote in the local elections on the same day was almost identical. That's a very low base to build from in a constituency where you can't expect too many transfers.

Also, the SDLP are pushing the 'popular Portaferry chippy owner' line quite heavily; well, the line up of main non-unionist candidates was the same last time as this time; if being a popular chip shop owner didn't win a seat for Boyle then, I don't see why it should now. Having come so close, however, the SDLP need to have a serious go, and it's not impossible. Just not particularly likely.

It was the Alliance meltdown in 2003 that let the SDLP get so close. Kieran McCarthy is the sitting Alliance MLA seeking a third term. Also based on the Peninsula, just up the road from Boyle in Kircubbin, McCarthy is no ideological theoretician, but has been a local councillor on the Peninsula for 22 years and has a strong personal vote, often expressed in transfers from unlikely sources. For example, in 2003 he pulled in over 400 votes from a double elimination of Sinn Féin and Cedric Wilson. If Alliance's vote stays at its 2003 level, he might be in trouble again, but Alliance's vote seems to have been recovering here after reaching a nadir in 2001, and if he can maintain the 9.0% he polled in the 2005 Westminster poll, let alone the 13.5% Alliance managed in the contemporaneous local elections, he should be safe. Unless Alliance decides to flirt with suicide again.

The DUP are the dominant party in Strangford these days - the constituency produced their best result in Northern Ireland in the 2003 election and at each of the 2005 votes. In the 2005 Westminster election, the DUP polled 56.5% to the UUP's 21.3%. That would see them win four seats comfortably. In the local elections, the DUP lead the UUP by 49.1% to 23.3%. As usual, not quite as good for the DUP but enough to give them at least a fighting chance of a fourth seat.

We know from 2003, when the 3 DUP candidates split 8548/4703/4606, that the DUP can manage their vote to a certain extent here, and the party overall is learning how to do it better. And Iris Robinson's transfer rate to her two DUP colleagues was a remarkable 92.8%. That gives them a very sound platform to build from.

The DUP ticket is headed by Iris Robinson, of course, and Jim Shannon will be seeking his third Assembly term alongside her. With George Ennis deselected (of which more later), the bottom of the ticket is made up of two first-term Newtownards councillors, Simon Hamilton and Michelle McIlveen. Hamilton and McIlveen are both young, well educated, professionals. In a sign of the times, they seem entirely too middle-class and fresh-faced to be DUP Assembly candidates - classic "New DUP", in fact.

And that will set up an interesting battle between the New DUP and the Old DUP. In a classic clash of heads, the dissident Unionists' boast not one but two candidates here - Cedric Wilson, who has been around since God was a boy, is running on an anti-St. Andrews ticket. Given his personal difficulties with Bob McCartney, he will not be running under the UKUP banner which once saw him elected to the Assembly here, but as an Independent.

The UKUP will have a candidate in George Ennis, who was a DUP MLA here until deselected in January. Like other de-selectees, sceptics may accuse Ennis of jumping on a convenient bandwagon, but he has been a councillor in Newtownards since 1993; indeed he significantly outpolled Simon Hamilton and Michelle McIlveen in 2005. How much of that vote is genuinely personal is another matter - Ennis only started polling big council votes from 2001, on the back of a big regional swing to the DUP. I can't see either candidate winning a seat, but Strangford should return one of the best votes for dissident Unionism.

Like the dissidents, the Ulster Unionist Party seems to be intent on shooting itself in the foot here. With barely a quota and a half in each of the 2005 elections, they have fielded three candidates. That brings with it all the usual risks of vote-splitting and leakage. David McNarry, prominent Orangeman and unsuccessful UUP leadership candidate should take the sole safe UUP seat and be returned for his second term as an MLA. Running alongside him are Angus Carson a Portavogie based Councillor in his second term, and Michael Henderson, a third term councillor and sales manager from Carryduff. Henderson seems to have the bigger and longer established voting base, although Carson has the better ballot position. I think Henderson will probably outpoll Carson but with the UUP fragmenting their vote, the odds have to be against them taking a second seat. With both the SDLP and Alliance likely to be in the running until late in the count, they will have few sources of transfers. They could hold two but it won't be easy for them.

Henderson once stood as a Tory council candidate, which is all the more interesting as Tory candidate Bob Little was the UUP's unsuccessful third Strangford candidate in 2003. Like Henderson he is seen as a former British Army officer. He is seen as one of the Tories' stronger candidates in what should be one of their best constituencies, but is unlikely to be elected. If I were him, I would be looking to build for the supercouncil elections.

The Greens' Stephanie Sim is unlikely to trouble the leader board, although as a native of Singapore who has been resident in NI for 10 years she has one of the more interesting back stories of the election. Finally, Martin Gregg is standing as an Independent. Beyond the fact that he publishes 'BT16plus', a free newspaper in Dundonald, and tries to freep the Dundonald entry on Wikipedia to publicise himself, I know nothing about him.

2003 vote - DUP 47.9%/3.36Q, UUP 28.9%/2.03Q, SDLP 7.8%/0.55Q, Alliance 7.4%/0.52Q, SF 3.0%/0.21Q, Green 1.1%/0.08Q, Oth U 3.0%/0.21Q, Oth N 0.9%/0.06Q.

Candidates - DUP: Simon HAMILTON, Michelle McILVEEN, Iris ROBINSON*, Jim SHANNON*. UUP: Angus CARSON, Michael HENDERSON, David McNARRY*. SDLP: Joe BOYLE. Alliance: Kieran McCARTHY*. Sinn Féin: Dermot KENNEDY. Green: Stephanie SIM. UKUP: George ENNIS. Conservative: Bob LITTLE. Independents: David GREGG, Cedric WILSON. (*=Sitting MLA)

Prediction: 4 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 Alliance.
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