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Newry and Armagh 2015: Long shots lining up to challenge Sinn Fein favourite

By Liam Clarke

Published 29/04/2015

Conor Murphy
Conor Murphy

There is an old military principle that the best time to attack an enemy is when he is crossing a river. That is what everybody thought when Conor Murphy, one of Sinn Fein's most able rising stars, stepped aside in favour of Mickey Brady, a relative newcomer.

As a former IRA prisoner from a large extended republican family, Mr Murphy was "well got" with traditional Sinn Fein voters. He also made a good impression on TV and was regarded as a hard worker. Mr Brady, in contrast, is a relatively recent recruit to Sinn Fein with no Troubles record of violence. Still, he has a reputation of his own. He worked in welfare rights locally, a field that allows you to help a lot of people and build up favours, for years.

He has also been an MLA since 2007 so, although a big-hitter has been dropped to be moved back to Stormont, the current Sinn Fein candidate looks pretty confident.

Areas of Newry and Armagh were known as 'bandit country' during the Troubles, IRA strongholds where troops could only move in strength or by helicopter.

Since then there have been high-profile rows, like the recent one over the decision to name a children's play park in Newry after Raymond McCreesh, an IRA hunger striker.

Ulster Unionist candidate Danny Kennedy says that canvassers are finding that these issues are no longer at the front of people's minds. "It is largely about bread-and-butter issues at Stormont. People ask about things like health, education and the road infrastructure." He said that other issues were there "under the radar".

Mr Kennedy says he is getting a good reception on both sides of the community and believes some traditional opponents will back him.

The unionist pact gives Mr Kennedy a clean run by removing other unionist candidates. In the 2011 Assembly election Sinn Fein got 40.8% of the vote and that was slightly down. The SDLP got 23.5%. On the unionist side the UUP got 18.7%, the DUP 13.1%, the TUV 1.8% and Ukip 0.2%. If you add all those unionists together it gives 33.8%, well short of Sinn Fein.

To get a unionist elected you also need Justin McNulty, the SDLP candidate, to push his vote up to over 30%, which is a big ask. It is an even bigger ask for Mr McNulty to win, but supporters are convinced that this well-known GAA player can do it on a good day.

The SDLP's Seamus Mallon won this seat from the UUP in a 1986 by-election and both parties feel that this is historically theirs.

"People are coming out on the streets to talk to Justin, it is a lot like canvassing with Seamus Mallon. This is a game-changer seat and this is another watershed election," says Brian Watters, a campaign worker.

The bottom line is that if you believe that and are a gambler there is money to be made. William Hill will give you 11/2 on Mr McNulty and 33/1 on Mr Kennedy, but Mr Brady is 1/10 favourite. They clearly think he will make it over this river.

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