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South Down 2015: SDLP wary of new Sinn Fein kid on the block

By Deborah McAleese

Published 22/04/2015

Margaret Ritchie
Margaret Ritchie

It will be a battle of youth versus experience.

Will South Down voters place their trust in experienced political heavyweight Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP or young, enthusiastic newcomer Chris Hazzard of Sinn Fein who is fighting his first election?

Just 27 years old, Hazzard joined the Assembly three years ago when he was co-opted to replace Willie Clarke. But he has quickly become one of Sinn Fein's rising stars, with party leaders appointing him education spokesman in the Assembly.

Born and raised in Drumaness, he is a more attractive choice for local voters than Catriona Ruane, who was parachuted into the constituency from Louth in the early 2000s.

In the last two elections the Sinn Fein vote in this strong nationalist constituency has hovered at just over 12,000, but the party is hoping that Hazzard's youthful enthusiasm, and the fact he has no baggage from the Troubles, will prove attractive.However, younger voters alone won't be enough for him to win.

He faces a formidable opponent in Margaret Ritchie. The 57-year-old Annacloy woman learned her trade from her friend and mentor Eddie McGrady.

She served as his parliamentary assistant from 1987-2003, became a Down councillor in 1985 and won a seat in the NI Assembly in 2003. She was the Minister for Social Development from 2007-10.

Paul Symington, editor of the Down Recorder newspaper, said Ritchie "is renowned as one of the hardest working MPs in the province".

"She is wedded to politics and her job as an MP. She has seen off Ruane and is now preparing to take on a younger, altogether different contender with the same forensic attention to detail which has categorised her career to date," Mr Symington said.

He warned however: "While Ritchie is the undoubted favourite there is a nervousness within the SDLP about facing an unknown from the new wing of Sinn Fein."

In the 2010 elections, Ritchie's first Westminster battle, tactical voting saw swathes of unionists voting SDLP in a calculated bid to keep Ruane out.

Hazzard will be hoping those tactical unionist voters will end their temporary allegiance to the SDLP. However, Ritchie's majority in 2010 was 8,244. Even if she hadn't received any unionist votes she would have comfortably defeated Ruane.

Jim Wells of the DUP will likely top the unionist poll for a third time as he fights his fourth Westminster election.

Ukip candidate Henry Reilly will be hoping to use the election battle as an opportunity to raise his profile. The Ulster Unionists are putting forward Harold McKee, from Kilkeel, a councillor in Newry, Mourne and Down Council.

Alliance is again fielding a candidate, Saintfield man Martyn Todd, while London-based banker Felicity Buchan is to run for the Conservatives. It will be the second time the party has contested a general election in South Down.

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