Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte
North Antrim consists of three whole Districts - Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle-centred Moyle. Left untouched by the boundary commissioners for more almost thirty years, it is now distinctly oversized with by far the largest electorate of any of the 18 constituencies.
Apart from the district centres, the main towns and villages are Bushmills, Rasharkin, Dunloy, Clogh Mills, Cullybackey, Ahoghill, Portglenone, Broughshane and Kells. However these neat, often rather non-descript villages, are less well known than North Antrim's abundance of tourist attractions - the Giant's Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the Oul' Lammas Fair, St. Patrick's mountain of Slemish, the Antrim Coast Road and the Glens and Plateau of Antrim.
While the rugged coast and high plateau get most of the tourist attention, the bulk of the rural population lives in the fertile valleys of the Bann, Braid, Main and Bush Rivers. This area has also had a lot of industry, and Ballymena, home to a quarter of the constituency's population, is still a major manufacturing centre. Urban myth has always held Ballymena to have the highest concentration of millionaires in Northern Ireland, perhaps a nod to the town's reputation for a thrift borne of its Scottish heritage. Scattered across the landscape are little ex-industrial villages like Balnamore. However, agriculture is perceived to dominate here, and indeed does employ almost 1 in 7 workers; a minority, but a very significant one. Tourism is also of huge economic importance, especially in Ballycastle, the Glens and Causeway Coast, while Bushmills' industrial economy is dominated by a very special product. While the overall population density is lower than the Northern Ireland average, this is to a large degree influenced by the virtually uninhabited Antrim Plateau.
Overall, this is a relatively prosperous constituency, with unemployment lower and incomes higher than the Northern Ireland average. Ballymena Town contains the only areas which deviate significantly from this norm, with the Ballykeel and Ballee Estates among the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland, and the middle-class districts along the Cullybackey, Carniny and Galgorm Roads and out to Gracehill among Northern Ireland's most prosperous. As far as the rest of the constituency goes, the Glens, Ballymoney and the area around Bushmills have slightly higher than average levels of deprivation, the higher reaches of the Bann Valley and Ballycastle are close to the NI average, while the rural areas around Ballymena and the Lower Bann are slightly better off than average. Both Ballycastle and Ballymoney have their leafy lanes and deprived estates, although nothing extreme.
North Antrim has an odd age pyramid - although the population is slightly older than the Northern Ireland average, the fertility rate is very slightly above the average (1.86 as opposed to 1.80). The older urban areas, especially the middle-class ones, help keep the average down but most of the rural areas have fertility rates close to or even above the replacement level of 2.1. Communal differences in birth rate drove significant demographic change in North Antrim in the 1980s and 1990s, but that seems to be less the case now. While the Glens and Dunloy have well above average birthrates, so do some of the overwhelmingly Protestant rural communities around Bushmills and Ballymoney. In general, the fertility rates are much lower in the South of the constituency.
North Antrim is the 6th most Protestant constituency (68% Protestant, 30% Catholic). Some rural areas here are almost entirely dominated by one community, in patterns that are often centuries old. The Glens are almost entirely Catholic, and the Antrim Plateau from Loughgiel down to Martinstown is only slightly less so. In contrast, the area between Ballymoney and Bushmills and the rural area outside Ballymena are almost entirely Protestant. The Bann Valley is more mixed, with a Protestant majority of roughly 2-to-1.
In Ballymena, the Catholic population is concentrated around the Cushendall and Broughshane Roads, although this area is mixed with a definite Protestant minority even in Fisherwick (or at least there was in 2001). There are very few Catholics in the sprawling loyalist-dominated housing estates south of Ballymena town centre, while the rest of the town is the reverse of the Broughshane Road area, with a definite Protestant majority but a stable and well integrated Catholic minority.
Overall, however, the historic pattern of settlement means that smaller towns here are usually dominated by one section community to an extent unusual even in Northern Ireland. The Catholic population in the constituency's main settlements is as follows - Ballymena 24%, Ballymoney 17%, Ballycastle 78%, Broughshane 5%, Cullybackey 1%, Ahoghill 6%, Bushmills 2%, Dunloy 97%, Cushendall 97%, Portgelnone 47%, Kells 1%, Balnamore 6%, Dervock 6%, Rasharkin 74%, Waterfoot 98%
Nicholas Whyte's figures show that last time Sinn Féin gained a seat here, with the SDLP holding on to make sure the Ulster Unionists were the party to lose out by around 1,000 votes. In Paisley's heartland, the DUP of course dominated for a final result of DUP 3, UUP 1, Sinn Féin 1 and SDLP 1.
The Nationalist vote has been creeping up here, and while there were not quite 2 Quotas in 2005, there would probably be enough transfers from Alliance to the SDLP that the two nationalist seats are safe in any circumstances.
Sinn Féin first outpolled the SDLP here in the 2003 Assembly election, and built on that lead in 2005. There have been internal ructions within Sinn Féin here with the Portglenone branch of the party resigning en masse over the policing issue and sitting MLA Philip McGuigan standing down, allegedly because of his friendship with Dennis Donaldson.
During the troubles, this was an area with relatively little IRA activity and virtually no Sinn Féin base outside of Rasharkin and Dunloy. Sinn Féin have managed to spread their wings virtually throughout the constituency these days, and are well organised here. However, in an ironic twist, they will face dissident opposition here in the face of Paul McGlinchey, brother of Dominic 'Mad Dog' McGlinchey. There has been some Real IRA activity in Ballymena (of all places) and North Antrim seems to be an area where attitudes among some young Catholics are hardening. However McGlinchey will make a limited impact and Ballymoney councillor Daithi McKay will have no trouble in inheriting the Sinn Féin seat.
SDLP veteran Seán Farren is also standing down, and the SDLP are fielding two candidates in long standing Ballymena Councillor Declan O'Loan and Cushendall Councillor Orla Black. The SDLP have helpfully published their vote management strategy on their North Antrim website, and it seems O'Loan is getting 60% of the SDLP vote. Black has the alphabet in her favour, but O'Loan has the advantage of long experience on Ballymena Council and the contacts that go with it. Black is said to have a personal appeal well beyond her party label, but her base in the Glens has only a tiny electorate, and ultimately I think O'Loan will nick this one. In any case, one SDLP seat is safe.
On the Unionist side, there is now only one UUP seat left, with their vote barely even scraping the one quota mark in the 2005 Westminster elections. Indeed, there has been some speculation that even this seat is under threat, but in the local elections on the same day they polled 1.29 Quotas' worth. With long standing Ballymena councillor and two-term MLA Bob Coulter the lead UUP candidate instead of London-based barrister Rodney McCune, who stood against Paisley in 2005, their seat should be safe, especially as things are not all rosy in the local DUP camp. The UUP are running a second candidate, Connor farmer Robin Swann, but he failed to be elected to Ballymena Council in 2005 and without vote management, I can't see him doing much here.
That probably means there are no more than three seats for the DUP. Paisley polled 3.8 Quotas for the DUP in the Westminster election, fuelling speculation that the DUP could win four seats here. The DUP have nominated four candidates here and it's not an absolute impossibility that they could do it, particularly as their transferring has historically been very tight here, with Paisley's surplus usually going to other DUP candidates at over 90%. However, the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin quotas all look reasonably secure and in the 2005 local government elections, the DUP polled a slightly more modest 3.4 Quotas.
Besides, to win four seats from even a base of 3.8 quotas would require expert vote management; balancing four candidates when two of them are called Paisley is probably the most difficult vote management task in the book. Although the Paisleys have always been careful to leave the third runner here with a reasonable first preference base, in contrast to other DUP prominenti, winning four would require management on a different scale. The DUP are giving it a go, but it may be beyond them,
As well as Paisleys Senior and Junior, the DUP are running Ballymoney-based Mervyn Storey again, along with first-term Ballymena councillor Deirdre Nelson. The selection of the rather 'New DUP' looking Nelson shows smarter selection tactics than the DUP have used in other areas, but as someone who only moved to Ballymena from Belfast in 2001, she may be a weakish link.
The main fly in the DUP's ointment is the presence of Lyle Cubitt, running on an anti-deal platform for the UKUP. Cubitt, whose brother is standing for the UKUP in East Derry, is a Ballymena solicitor well known for being a serial writer to the Newsletter's letters page. With seven of the party's 14 strong group on Ballymena council refusing to canvass for the DUP due to their personal opposition to power sharing with Sinn Féin, there is clearly mileage for him, and Cubitt is well known in Ballymena. In fact, with the possible exception of McCartney and his unusual situation in North Down, he has by far the best prospects of any dissident Unionist candidate in this election.
How good are his chances? Like other candidates coming from one or other extreme of the party system, I reckon he needs to poll the guts of a quota, somewhere in the region 12.5% or 13%, on first preferences to win a seat. I don't know what sort of campaign infrastructure he has, if any, so I can't make a realistic assessment of whether he can do this. But he has a better chance than any candidate, other than Bob himself, of doing it.
Back in 1998, Alliance could have felt they had a reasonable outside bet of taking a seat here, with David Alderdice having polled 6% in 1997. Since then, their vote has dwindled badly as it has in other 'second tier' Alliance areas like East Derry and Upper Bann. Jayne Dunlop did push her vote back over the 1000 mark in the 2005 general election vote, and she will want to push it up further to try and establish a bridgehead for the supercouncil elections. But she has no chance of coming close to a seat, and presumably local resources will be being directed to South Antrim.
Finally, James Gregg, an Independent from Clough, finishes off the ballot paper. I know nothing more about this candidate (in a depressing admission of defeat) and would welcome any information anyone has about him.
2003 vote - DUP 45.9%/3.21Q, UUP 21.6%/1.51Q, SF 14.0%/0.98Q, SDLP 13.6%/0.95Q, Alliance 2.0%/0.14Q, Oth U 2.8%/0.20Q.
Candidates - DUP: Deirdre NELSON, Ian PAISLEY Sr.*, Ian PAISLEY Jr*, Mervyn STOREY*. UUP: Bob COULTER*, Robert SWANN. SF: Daithi McKAY. SDLP: Orla BLACK, Declan O'LOAN. Alliance: Jayne DUNLOP. UKUP: Lyle CUBITT. Republican SF+: Paul McGLINCHEY. Independent: James GREGG. (*=Sitting MLA; +Will appear on the ballot paper without a party label)
Prediction: 3 DUP, 1 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP, 1 UUP.