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NI Assembly Election: 'I always vote DUP but after the in-fighting I'm now UUP'

Portadown

By Victor Gordon

They know their politics in Portadown, the town that straddles the River Bann and gives the constituency its Upper Bann label.

And so they should know their political onions. For North Armagh MP Colonel James Saunderson (1837-1921), whose statue dominates the town centre, famously declared in Westminster, "Home Rule may pass this House, but it will never pass the Bann Bridge in Portadown".

There have been many political spotlights in the town since - in more modern times, the Paisley 'no surrender rallies', the rise and fall of local MLA and First Minister David Trimble, and, course, the Drumcree stand-off.

Portadown has seen it all, and maybe the fact that the Northern Ireland constituencies are labelled as 'East of the Bann' and 'West of the Bann' gives the town a real importance in this unexpected polling season.

To the east of the river, the main body of pollsters inhabit loyalist areas, while in the west, it's more evenly split.

At Garvaghy Road, SDLP and Sinn Fein were vying for support, although there was a poster or two eulogising the UUP, while the 'far west' was solidly DUP versus UUP and there was little sign of cross-community support.

On the east side of the Bann, the loyalist voters were at variance, although there were signs of changing 'orange sides' as voting all round approached the 40% mark early evening.

First stop in the east was Edenderry polling station, where great-grandmother Ann Irvine (75) insisted that the election was "totally unnecessary".

"I've voted DUP all along," she said. "But there has been so much in-fighting and waste among this Assembly that I'm switching to the UUP and Jo-Anne Dobson and Doug Beattie. I've never missed a vote in my life but I'm fed up with the extremes of DUP and Sinn Fein."

Eric and Rachelle Browne admired the local UUP candidate Captain Doug Beattie MC and his distinguished military record, "but we can't bring ourselves to support his stand for mixed marriage".

At Garvaghy Road, Sinn Fein candidate John O'Dowd was on duty and - like all sides in Portadown - predicted a slightly higher turn-out than in May last year.

Voter Leanne Halfpenny believed the election was vital "to instil a spot of working-together. I only hope that it works out towards more genuine co-operation among the parties," she added.

SDLP worker Eamon McNeill - who stood in the 2014 council elections - is hoping that the middle parties emerge and "that the extreme parties lose out".

He admired the stance of UUP leader Mike Nesbitt towards cross-party voting.

Portadown has a 10% migrant population, and voting - "as I do every time" - was Jose Conceigao from East Timor. "I hope it settles down," was his only comment.

Still west of the Bann, and at the Hart Memorial polling station, the DUP's Jonny Buckley was canvassing. Pensioners Ann and Joe Donaldson were voting for DUP and UUP down the list. They claimed Mike Nesbitt's call was "folly and premature", and believed Buckley would top the poll in Portadown.

Engaged couple Elaine Blair and Andrew Coulter felt that Sinn Fein "manoeuvred the election". They felt there would be a few months of Direct Rule when "Britain will bring in water charges and bedroom taxes, SF will blame Westminster, and things will settle down to Stormont Rule."

Overall verdict? Little will change.

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