Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte
East Antrim contains the entire Boroughs of Carrickfergus and Larne, as well as four wards from Newtownabbey (covering Jordanstown, Monkstown, Cloughfern, and part of Whiteabbey). On a map, East Antrim looks like Northern Ireland's answer to Chile, snaking along the North Channel coast from Whiteabbey to Carnlough. Running from built up Belfast suburbia right through to the Antrim Coast Road, East Antrim contains a diversity of types of settlement and local economy.
At its southern end, East Antrim starts about six miles from the centre of Belfast, and the southern half of the constituency is dominated by commuter settlements making use of the railway and A2 road into Belfast, or their proximity to Newtownabbey's large industrial base. Whiteabbey, Monkstown, Jordanstown and Greenisland are dormitory areas of differing social compositions within Belfast's urban orbit. Heading along the coast, Carrickfergus is next, the largest town in the constituency with its famous Norman castle. It is also a socially mixed dormitory for Belfast, with the rapidly growing commuter village of Woodburn inland. Beyond, Whitehead is another coastal commuter town astride the railway to Belfast, with long avenues of large houses which fit its genteel image, and sprawling council estates which don't.
Once past Whitehead, however, the Belfast accents suddenly disappear, and despite the odd new housing development in places like Ballycarry, the stretch of coast between here and Larne is deeply rural. Villages like Magheramorne, Glynn, Glenoe and the farmland of Islandmagee seem rather cut off from the rest of the world. This is the Ulster-Scots heartland. Larne itself is a somewhat dreary industrial and transport centre, traditionally where all the ferries from Scotland landed, although it has been somewhat displaced by Belfast of recent years. It is the second largest population centre in the constituency, with socio-economic indices close to the Northern Ireland norm. Beyond lie Glenarm and Carnlough, astride to the stunning Antrim Coast Road, favoured spots for daytrippers. Larne District is more economically indepedent of Belfast - although many locals do commute to the city to work, the majority work locally.
Overall, levels of income and unemployment in East Antrim are slightly better than the Northern Ireland average. This is very much middle Northern Ireland, however, and there are few areas that match the prosperity of much of the suburban area to the South and East of Belfast. There are isolated pockets of poverty in the Monkstown Estate on the outskirts of Belfast, the Craigyhill Estate in Larne, and in patches around the North Road in Carrickfergus. Even some areas with something of a local reputation, like the Greenisland Estate, are well outside Northern Ireland's top tier of deprivation.
Similarly, only a few pockets are among the most prosperous parts of Northern Ireland - Jordanstown and the best parts of Greenisland, and around Victoria Road and Taylor's Avenue in Carrickfergus. One standout area is the patch to the east of Jordanstown station, around the Lenamores and the Meadowlands development - this is officially the least deprived of the 890 Super Output Areas used by census takers. The age and educational profile of the constituency are also very close to average, although the birth rate is a little low.
While East Antrim's socio-economic profile is distinctly average, in terms of community background it is the fourth most Protestant constituency (79.2% Protestant, 15.8% Catholic according to the 2001 Census). The Catholic population is concentrated at the each end of the constituency. Carnlough is the only ward with a Catholic majority (78%), and there are substantial minorities in Glenarm and immediately around the University of Ulster in Jordanstown and Whiteabbey. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is a substantial Catholic minority in Larne Town itself (26%). Carrickfergus Borough and the southern half of Larne borough, however are overwhelmingly Protestant.
In 2003, East Antrim returned 3 MLAs from the DUP, 2 from the UUP and 1 from Alliance. Those who are as geeky as I am can find count by count figures on Nicholas Whyte's website. The DUP gained two seats in 2003 - one was the consolidation of the UKUP seat that occurred in nearly all the Belfast suburban constituencies; the second was the seat the SDLP surprisingly won in 1998.
The easy question to answer is whether or not the DUP will hold those three seats. The answer is emphatically yes. Sammy Wilson polled 49.6% here in the 2005 Westminster election, while in the local elections held on the same day, the DUP polled 40.0% despite a huge vote for independents. I am somewhat surprised that the DUP aren't running a fourth candidate here - it would be an unlikely prospect, but they certainly have the votes to make at least a credible attempt at winning four seats. As it is, their sitting tenants - Sammy Wilson, David Hilditch and George Dawson - will be returned easily enough.
That makes things easy for the Ulster Unionists, who have been bumping along around the two quota level anyway. They are pretty much assured two seats here in the absence of serious DUP pressure. Roy Beggs Jr. is certain to re-elected with a very healthy vote. Jordanstown based Ken Robinson has spent two terms in the Assembly, although he never looks that comfortable on polling day. Last time out, party colleague Roy McCune, with his strong RUC contacts, pushed Robinson within 7 votes before being eliminated. Larne Councillor Mark Dunn, who replaces McCune as the third runner this time out, may prove less of a challenge as his geographical base is close to Beggs' and he polled a fairly anaemic vote in Larne Town in the last council elections.
This area has often produced Alliance's best vote in the whole of Northern Ireland, and did so again in 2003. It was a sign of how dreadful that election was for Alliance that their best result was only 10.9%. Given their recovery here in 2005, I would expect them around or even a little over the 1 Quota mark this time, with Sean Neeson polling comfortably more than Stewart Dickson. Alliance would have had two seats here in 1998 had they balanced better. Instead they let the SDLP's Danny O'Connor slip through the middle for the shock of the election. It's still theoretically possible for Alliance to win two seats here if they managed balance two candidates ahead of the combined nationalist vote. They were only a few hundred votes off polling twice the nationalist vote in the 2005 Westminster Election, but despite repeated attempts they have shown no ability to balance in East Antrim.
This leaves little room for either Nationalist party. The SDLP's Danny O'Connor fluked a win here in 1998 from just 0.41 of a quota, helped by poor Aliance balancing and a signficant minority of transfers from the UUP which pushed him just ahead of the DUP's Jack McKee on the final count. In 2003, he pushed his vote up to a respectable 0.55 quotas, but couldn't repeat the perfect transfer storm of 1998 and lost his seat by almost 800 votes at the end of the day. By 2005, the SDLP vote had dropped back to its level of 1997, and while the Sinn Féin vote has increased slightly since the 1990s, it has done so from a very low base and their best results are still well below 3%.
The combined Nationalist vote in 2003 was a respectable 10.3%. While this can be competitive in some circumstances, ultimately there are not enough transfers for the SDLP in a constituency where other parties had solid quotas. In 2005 the total Nationalist vote had dropped to 7.9%, and that's more or less the level I would expect it to stay at this time, as more informed voters conclude Danny O'Connor's win was a one off fluke. This is one constituency where the SDLP will outpoll SF comfortably. One notable feature of the Sinn Féin vote here is its willingness to transfer on - only 51 of the 779 SF votes on elimination in 2003 were non-transferrable.
Tories and Greens will both be hoping to improve on what were, frankly, dismal results of less than 200 votes apiece in 2003, especially now that the Women's Coalition are off the scene. Independent John Anderson would also presumably like to improve on his 1.1% of the vote last time - unlikely given his consistent falure to get elected even to Larne council.
Finally, one of the most intriguing potential candidatures in this seat has not actually happened - that of Larne councillor Jack McKee. Commuters on the struggling Larne railway line must wish their trains ran as often as McKee leaves and rejoins the DUP. Most recently, he left the party (again) about a month ago in protest at the St. Andrew's Agreement. Whatever his eccentricities, McKee has a solid base of support here, polling almost a third of a quota in 2003 in the face of two other 'hard-anti' candidates - and the three of them together polled well over half a quota last time. McKee, however, is not running and instead Tom Robinson, the 2003 UKUP candidate, will stand again. Although Robinson has been elected here in the past under the UUP banner, he seems to have little personal support, and while he might poll a couple of thousand votes or so, he will struggle to attract transfers.
2003 vote - DUP 34.1%/2.39Q, UUP 28.7%/2.01Q, Alliance 10.9%/0.76Q, SDLP 7.8%/0.55Q, SF 2.5%/0.17Q, Oth U 11.5%/0.80Q, Womens' Coaltion 1.0%/0.07Q, Con 0.6/0.04Q, Green 0.05%/0.04Q, Inds 2.3%/0.16Q.
Candidates - DUP: George DAWSON*, David HILDITCH*, Sammy WILSON*. UUP: Roy BEGGS (Jnr.)*, Mark DUNN, Ken ROBINSON*. Alliance: Seán NEESON*, Stewart DICKSON. SDLP: Danny O'CONNOR. Sinn Féin: Oliver McMULLAN. UKUP: Tom ROBINSON. Cons: Tim LEWIS. Green: Mark BAILEY. Ind: John ANDERSON. (*=Sitting MLA)
Prediction: 3 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 Alliance.