Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte
South Down is another constituency which has been in geographical retreat as its population has grown and new constituencies have been created in the middle of the county. It has also been left by the boundary commissioners for rather too long and is somewhat oversized, covering 20 of 23 wards in Down District, 13 of 30 wards in Newry and Mourne and 4 of 17 wards in Banbridge District.
Like Mid Ulster, it lacks a dominating town. Downpatrick is the largest town and the only one with a population over 10,000. Other important towns are Ballynahinch, Newcastle, Kilkeel and Warrenpoint. Smaller settlements of note include Crossgar, Ardglass, Killough, Dundrum, Castlewellan, Rathrfriland, Hilltown, Annalong, Kilkeel and Rostrevor. The dominant physical features are the Mountains of Mourne and Slieve Croob, source of the River Lagan.
South Down is a sprawling, heterogeneous, constituency. Ballynahinch and Crossgar are growing with new developments confirming their status at the bleeding edge of the Belfast commuter belt. Kilkeel and surrounding settlements in the Mournes are quite isolated and deeply traditional.
With the boundary of the constituency retreating slowly southwards in recent years, the traditional, rural, part of the constituency is ever more important. That is reflected in a population that is younger, although only slightly, than the Northern Ireland average, but more remarkably in a fertility rate which is the second highest in Northern Ireland (2.04 as opposed to an average of 1.80). It is high across the overwhelming majority of the constituency, and is particularly high in the increasingly suburbanised rural area to the east of Newry, while it is noticeably lower in the older parts of Ballynahinch, Kilkeel, Newcastle and Warrenpoint and lowest of all, for a reason I can't work out, around the village of Strangford.
South Down’s economic and education statistics cluster either side of the Northern Ireland mean. Most of the constituency is close to the NI average, tending to slightly more prosperous than average in the north. A notable exception is Downpatrick’s Flying Horse estate, with levels of deprivation comparable to the districts of Belfast many of its residents were rehoused from. Parts of Kilkeel and Warrepoint also rank among the most deprived areas in NI. Indeed, most of the towns, including those like Warrenpoint and Newcastle which are perceived as being prosperous, are more deprived than rural parts of South Down and indeed the Northern Ireland average.
One major exception is the rural area to the east of Newry, already discussed, where deprivation levels are noticeably lower than average, and even more so in the far north of the consituency, in the rural area between Saintfield and Ballynahinch, which is definitely part of the Belfast exurban fringe. Downpatrick and Newcastle also have some decidedly leafy avenues. However, no Super Output Area in South Down quite makes it into the top 10% in Northern Ireland.
Once a marginal seat, held at Westminster level by Enoch Powell, demographic changes have reinforced more radical changes carried out by the boundary commissioner to produce a constituency which is the 5th most Catholic (66.3% Catholic, 31.8% Protestant in the 2001 Census). Although there is quite a bit of complexity at micro level, at a gross level there is a tendency for the north of the consituency to be more Protestant than the South.
The Protestant population in the rural areas around Warrenpoint and Rostrevor is well below 10%, but increases as one proceeds eastwards through the Mournes, reaching 15% in Mayobridge and Spelga and closer to 50% on the coast around Annalong and Kilkeel. The area around Rathrfiland and Katesbridge, in contrast, has a Protestant majority of roughly 2-to-1, while the middle of the constituency, around Seaforde, Dundrum and Ballykinler, is more or less evenly mixed. Drumaness and the Lecale are largely Catholic, with a Protestant minorty of around 15%, while the reverse is true in the far north of the constituency, with a Catholic minority of around 20%.
In a pattern more common West of the Bann, however, it is in the towns and villages that the Catholic majority builds up. The Catholic share of the population in the most important of them is as follows: Downpatrick 87%, Ballynahinch 31%, Kilkeel 41%, Newcastle 69%, Warrenpoint 90%, Castlewellan 92%, Rostrevor 93%, Rathfriland 34%, Annalong 26%, Ardglass 88%, Crossgar 60%, Drumaness 92% and Dundrum 57%.
Unsurprisingly, this results in a constituency which consistently returns 4 Nationalists and 2 Unionists. In 2003, South Down returned 2 SDLP MLAs, 2 from Sinn Féin, 1 DUP and 1 UUP member, with SF gaining a seat from the SDLP since 1998. As Nicholas Whyte's detailed figures show, that Sinn Féin gain was a fairly close run thing. Less than 500 extra votes, split evenly between the two remaining SDLP candidates, would have seen them retain their third seat, and SF can congratulate themselves on a superb piece of vote management.
This time, both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are running three candidates, the SDLP having cut back from a rather excessive four last time.
On the SDLP side, sitting MLAs, Burren/Warrenpoint-based P.J. Bradley and Crossgar-based Margaret Ritchie will be joined by first term Warrenpoint councillor Michael Carr. Bradley's name is visible on posters all year round - he is a prominent estate agent!
Sinn Féin are also restanding their two sitting MLAs, Newcastle-based Willie Clarke and Catriona Ruane, who makes an all-Ireland point by living in Omeath although her political base has been around Warrenpoint and Rostrevor (with the occasional detour to Colombia). They will be joined once more by Downpatrick councillor Éamonn McConvey.
Sinn Féin have never managed two quotas here, so running three candidates seems a bit expansive, especially given the marginality of their gain last time - a few more Unionists voting down the ticket in 2003 would have seen the SDLP take three. In the 2005 elections, SF actually slipped back a little from 2003 here, so they can't take anything for granted. In 2003, McConvey only passed a little under 75% of his votes to his Sinn Féin running mates - that's not great for anyone, and very poor for by Shinner standards. Margaret Ritchie, who shares a geographical base with him, did noticeably well from this transfer of votes. Sinn Féin are playing with fire here.
Their pitch is also queered by the presence of former SF Councillor for The Mournes area, Martin Cunningham, on the ballot, standing on an abstentionist, anti-policing, ticket. There must be something in the water around Kilkeel, because his successor Martin Connolly has also left the party. Given that this was not an area known for its Republican base during The Troubles, that really is quite remarkable. And that is Cunningham's problem - Sinn Féin had fairly derisory votes in South Down pre-ceasefire, often failing to return a single councillor in the constituency and losing deposits in Westminster elections. I doubt he will be more than a minor irritation to SF, although he did poll 8.0% in The Mournes as an Independent in the last council elections.
In 2005, the SDLP outpolled Sinn Féin by 44.7% to 25.8% in the Westminster poll and by 34.5% to 24.1% in the council elections. Although the first figure is inflated by tactical voting and Eddie McGrady's personal vote, the council figures show that the SDLP can win three seats if they balance well and attract transfers. The question is whether or not they can attract more transfers from unionists than last time; I'd be inclined to say, yes but not enough extra transfers. I think Sinn Féin will retain two seats but this is so tight that I'm amazed that it hasn't appeared on more radar screens.
On the Unionist side, the DUP are looking to take a second seat and wipe out the UUP entirely. South Down had one of the most dramatic contrasts between general and local election voting anywhere, with the UUP outpolling the DUP in the local elections by 15.7% to 15.3%, but the DUP absolutely stuffing the UUP by 18.3% to 9.9% in the general election, close to that crucial 2:1 ratio.
However, I think that Westminster election figures flatter the DUP somewhat. Despite the presence of more Independents on the local election ballot paper, total unionist vote was almost 2.7% higher in the local poll. That reflects tactical and personal votes for McGrady, mostly from UUP supporters. I think the UUP's 'real' level of support is somewhere between those local and general election figures, so close to a quota and probably a safe seat.
I can't blame the DUP for having a go, however, especially given that they have the stronger ticket and the spate of defections that have afflicted the Ulster Unionists locally. DUP veteran, Jim Wells, once a young wonderboy turned into an old stager with a long political history here, will be joined by four-term Mournes councillor William Burns. That gives them a nice geographical and experience balance. With Dermot Nesbitt standing down, the UUP will be running a single candidate, Rathfriland farmer John McCallister. McCallister is something of a political neophyte and his selection raised a few eyebrows. He should get a chance to establish himself here, but if he does lose out, the Ulster Unionists will be kicking themselves.
Running here for the third time will be UKUP candidate Nelson Wharton. He did quite well first time out on the McCartney wave, dismally badly in 2003 and will probably do a little bit, but not much, better this year as he has the anti-Agreement field all to himself.
One of the more quixotic candidatures in this year's elections is that of former UUP Councillor Henry Reilly, who will be the first candidate to stand in a Northern Ireland election for the UK Independence Party. He has a significant local base in The Mournes, and in the absence of a well-established UUP candidate may well take a large slice of it with him. However, I can't see him doing too much beyond that.
Another former UUP Councillor is Bright Young Thing Peter Bowles, who many had tipped for the UUP nomination after Nesbitt's retirement. Instead, he defected to the Conservative Party in protest at the UUP-PUP pact in the Assembly. This is not natural Conservative territory, and although he polled a respectable vote in the council elections in Ballynahinch under a UUP banner, he will probably struggle in this one.
The Greens, on the other hand, have a stronger base here, with two elected councillors. This, along with North Down, will be one of their two target seats at this election. Given the geographical breadth of the constituency and the lack of a candidate with as dominant a past record as Brian Wilson, this is very much second on the Green target list, although Ciarán Mussen has a reasonable base around Warrenpoint and Hilltown and should be hanging about in the count for a while to benefit from transfers. If he does take a seat, it will be the second Sinn Féin one. But it would take a miracle.
Alliance's David Griffin will probably be one of Mussen's main sources of transfers. He is probably seeking to build for supercouncil elections as much as anything else. Rounding out a long ballot paper is Malachi Curran, former SDLP Councillor and one of Labour NI's improbable members of the 1996 Forum. Last time he polled just 162 votes, and with the Workers' Party not standing this time, will probably pick up the wooden spoon.
On balance, this looks like no change but both the SF/SDLP and UUP/DUP races are interesting, with the Greens adding a little spice.
2003 vote - SDLP 35.1%/2.46Q, SF 26.5%/1.85Q, UUP 18.2%/1.27Q, DUP 15.0%/1.05Q, Green 1.8%/0.12Q, Alliance 1.1%/0.08Q, UKUP 0.5%/0.04Q, Oth 0.6%/0.04Q.
Candidates - SDLP: P.J. BRADLEY*, Michael CARR, Margaret RITCHIE*. SF: Willie CLARKE*, Eamonn McCONVEY, Catriona RUANE*. UUP: John McCALLISTER. DUP: William BURNS, Jim WELLS*. Green: Ciaran MUSSEN. Alliance: David GRIFFIN. UKUP: Nelson WHARTON. NI Labour: Malachi CURRAN. Cons: Peter BOWLES. UK Independence Party: Henry REILLY. Ind Rep: Martin CUNNINGHAM. (*=Sitting MLA)
Prediction: 2 SF, 2 SDLP, 1 DUP, 1 UUP.