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Hitting the Upper Bann campaign trail as four main parties put faith in their female politicians

Rising DUP star Carla Lockhart has natural affinity with voters as SDLP's Dolores Kelly and Jo-Anne Dobson of UUP also hit streets in charm offensive

By Suzanne Breen

Published 02/05/2016

Above: Jo-Anne Dobson of the UUP campaigning in Banbridge and meeting with Sadie Beck
Above: Jo-Anne Dobson of the UUP campaigning in Banbridge and meeting with Sadie Beck
Carla Lockhart in Lurgan with Bethany McGillivray and her two-year-old daughter Elizabeth
Dolores Kelly of the SDLP campaigning in Lurgan with colleague Brid Rodgers

Zipping around Upper Bann in her white Mini, Carla Lockhart is going places fast. The DUP councillor has already broken records by becoming Craigavon's youngest mayor. After defeating her boss, sitting MLA Stephen Moutray, in the selection contest, she is now racing towards Stormont.

'Blonde Ambition' some have nicknamed her. But watching Lockhart canvassing in Lurgan, it's easy to understand her rapid rise. Her enthusiasm and energy is infectious. People on the streets love her.

"Carla is awesome," says 24-year-old mother, Bethany McGillivray, in the Mourneview estate who answers the door to the candidate with her two-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in her arms.

"She is ridiculously hard-working and does the stuff you wouldn't expect a politician to do. I can ring her and say, 'The play park hasn't been cleaned', and, within hours, Carla has it sorted," she said.

"I needed to find a house for myself and my two kids last year and she worked wonders. But it's not just that she delivers. I can talk to her in a way I can't imagine talking to other politicians. She gets the small stuff."

Around the corner in the Glenfield Road, pensioner Billy is weeding dandelions in his garden. "Hello trouble!" he shouts as Lockhart approaches. "Now, you got this road re-surfaced after the flooding but I've a list of other things for you to do."

Of the 18 Stormont constituencies, Upper Bann has the most striking female presence with the four biggest parties all running women candidates.

Lockhart is competing for the unionist vote with popular UUP MLA, Jo-Anne Dobson. In the nationalist corner, veteran SDLP politician, Dolores Kelly, is fighting for her political life as Sinn Fein schoolteacher, Cat Seeley, attempts to take her seat.

Lockhart is a 31-year-old business graduate from Aughnacloy in Co Tyrone. She began working as an assistant in Stephen Moutray's office on a three-month trial. She became a councillor at 22.

"I eat, sleep and breathe politics," she says. "I was leafleting outside polling stations with my daddy for the DUP from the age of five. When other teenagers had posters of pop stars on their walls, I had posters of Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, though I blush a wee bit about that now!"

Lockhart's DUP running-mate is outgoing MLA Sydney Anderson but it is the councillor in the Mini who has caught the public's eye. Sweet wrappers and stilettos are strewn around her car. "I was canvassing in these earlier," she says, pointing to five-inch heel leopard-print boots.

She survives "on diet coke and fruit pastilles". They must work because even though Lockhart was in Craigavon A&E until 3am - she bought her canvass team fish-and-chips the night before and a bone lodged in a worker's throat - she looks as fresh as a daisy.

When I express surprise at her choice of footwear - she belongs to the Free Presbyterian Church known for its women's conservative dress - she laughs.

"I like my style!" she says. Married to quantity surveyor Rodney Condell, Lockhart didn't think twice about keeping her own name. She is an intriguing mixture of the modern and traditional.

At the home of Raymond and Betty Sterritt, she is invited inside because Raymond - who is on crutches after a bad fall - wants to speak to her.

So, is he voting for her? "I'll think about it," he replies cheekily. "You will if you value your other leg!" she jokes.

Raymond reaches for his guitar and is soon singing a gospel song for the candidate. The living room resounds to the lyrics of "walking and leaping and praising God".

When he's finished, the DUP woman takes the guitar and is quickly making music herself. She sings in a gospel group, the Lockharts, with her brother and sister.

Yet Lockhart is equally at home in the Mourneview Park football stadium where Glenavon are playing Linfield. At the end of the game - 1-0 to Linfield - she is on the pitch awarding the man of the match trophy to Glenavon's player-manager, Gary Hamilton.

Some home supporters amicably disagree with her choice. "Carla, where's your white stick?" they shout.

Glenavon chief steward Raymond Flanagan gives her a huge hug. "I lost my wife last year to Parkinson's," he says.

"We were married 52 years and I was devastated. But Carla was there to listen over a cup of tea and help me fill in forms to get the benefits I was entitled to."

Chatting to Glenavon supporters, Lockhart admits to being "as nervous as a kitten" about Thursday's election. From the response on the ground, she has no need to be.

In her home town of Banbridge, Jo-Anne Dobson's canvassers work their way through the leafy Beechlands area. The candidate's chief cheerleader - her irrepressible mum Joanie Elliott - leads the charge.

Joanie is standing in the middle of the road chatting to drivers.

"There's my mum, stopping traffic again!" Jo-Anne jokes.

"How are you sweetheart?" the UUP politician asks pensioner David McCabe as he opens his door. He knows Jo-Anne from her organ donation campaign.

"I've been on dialysis seven years," he says. "They tell me I'm too old for a transplant. I'm hooked up to a machine for eight-and-a-half hours every night. It's a life sentence."

Dobson can rely on his vote, he says: "She's a lady, and a Banbridge lady - you can't improve on that."

The UUP candidate spends an inordinate amount of time at every house she canvasses. Her care for constituents is palpable.

"As UUP health spokesperson, I deal with life and death issues. I do get emotionally involved with people in a way male politicians often don't but that's no bad thing," she says. The most special door she knocks is that of retired midwife Sadie Beck.

"This is Sister Beck who delivered me," Dobson says.

"And it was only 20 years ago, judging by how well you look!" Sister Beck replies, her eyes brimming with pride. Dobson holds her hand as they chat.

Dobson says having so many women contest Upper Bann is "a very positive development".

She just laughs at opponents who criticise her glamorous image.

"I live on a hands-on family farm. I'm on standby for calving duty tonight," she adds. "But I make no apology for being into fashion and I've proved my political credentials as an MLA.

"The UUP has been great but there has been sexism from some other unionists in the Assembly, who are perhaps envious of that."

The canvass is very much a family affair with son Mark (23) on the team. "My mum is the best," he says. "She was going to give me a kidney and she cooks a brilliant Sunday roast."

Joanie Elliott says she couldn't be "more proud" of her daughter.

"She was always smiling as a baby. As a child, her lovely temperament and compassion for others was obvious. She had so many friends I lost count," she says.

Joanie's mother, who died of cancer when Jo-Anne was four, bought her granddaughter a schoolbag before she passed away.

"Mummy said, 'I won't live to see wee goldilocks go to school so I want her to have this'. Jo-Anne says that schoolbag inspired her to work hard. It took her to Stormont."

Dolores Kelly's big team of canvassers in Knockramer Meadows in Lurgan extends from her six-year-old grand-niece, Molly Grace Larkin, to 81-year-old SDLP veteran Brid Rodgers, whose sprightly step through the streets belies her age.

"We can do this, it's all about getting our vote out," says Rodgers. "People are responding to Colum Eastwood and coming back to the SDLP."

Resident Geraldine McCann says: "I don't want to think about Dolores not getting elected. She is always at the end of the phone for me whatever the hour. If she doesn't get in, it will be a case of people not knowing what they had until it's gone."

John McCusker and his nine-year-old son Ethan are also enthusiastic supporters. "Dolores was there in her wellies for us during the flooding. You won't find anyone more community-orientated."

There has been a spate of burglaries in the area and the SDLP has helped set up a neighbourhood watch scheme.

The candidate knocks the door of Peter McVeigh who burglars targeted.

"I appreciate you calling," he tells her.

Kelly says she has been "very well received" by voters but claims she was harassed by an ex-IRA prisoner in the Taghnevan estate.

"He said, 'I know what I'd like to do to you - put you up against a wall and put a bullet in your head'," she says.

With a growing Sinn Fein vote in the area, the odds are stacked against her.

Sinn Fein canvassers from both sides of the border are working flat out. Kelly insists she will survive.

"Sinn Fein wrote my political obituary at the last election five years ago," she says. "They were wrong then and they'll be wrong again."

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