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South Down: Mountain to climb to excite the voters of Mourne country

With the election a little over a week away one might think feverish political activity is the order of the day... not, it would appear, in South Down

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 27/04/2016

Colin McGrath with local resident Angela Craig
Colin McGrath with local resident Angela Craig
Jim Wells
Henry Reilly
John McCallister
Christopher Morley
Geraldine Jennings
Fiona Ogle
Freda Sharvin
Kevin Kearney
David Keating

South Down is a diverse and beautiful constituency. It has historic interest, natural beauty and holiday resorts for the kind of tourist who prefers candy floss to enlightenment.

There is Downpatrick, where the patron saint is buried and which is now a satellite town for commuters to Belfast. The view of the Mournes from Newcastle's main street is awesome. In Strangford the ferry over to Portaferry cuts through the choppy waters of the narrow mouth of the lough.

So, perhaps there is some excuse in the distractions the place offers for the pallid interest in politics that I found when stopping people to discuss how they will vote on May 5. There is always something near you more fascinating than elections. And lack of interest is what I found.

Many of the people I spoke to had no intention of voting. Some young people seemed to think of politics as an optional interest, like football or computer games, that they may take up or discard as the notion takes them. No one has persuaded them that voting is the mechanism by which they take control of the levers of power, sack the politicians who have failed them, promote those they think could do a better job.

David Keating, a retired nurse in Downpatrick who is voting for the SDLP, thought the reason there was little buzz about the election is that people had already made up their minds, as he has done himself.

There is a crowded field in South Down, with the TUV nibbling at the unionist Right. John McCallister, formerly of NI21 and the UUP, is fighting as an independent.

One would think that Jim Wells would bring colour to the contest, having roused controversy with his comments about getting on best with women under eight and over 80.

You could make a soap opera out of all that for example, McCallister's fallout with Basil McCrea. Perhaps it is the candidates themselves being so colourless that drains the drama. Yet that is where the flux is - if there is any.

"I don't hear much chat about it," said Mr Keating. "I think people just have their parties and traditionally just go along the line.

"Personally, I have always voted SDLP and I don't see any reason not to vote SDLP, so I don't think there'll be much change in this constituency.

"I think that the values the SDLP have are probably what I have. I like their history.

"I think that they are a people's party and most of their activists are down-to-earth, grassroots people. They are safe in Downpatrick. You can put your mortgage on that."

But lack of interest was evident in many responses.

"No, I'm not a voter myself," said 19-year-old Christopher Morley, a caterer. "If I vote, I don't really believe that my vote really matters, because it is one in a million or whatever."

'I don't know anything about it," added 21-year-old Kathleen, who has never voted before. "I'll probably talk to my daddy about it and see what he says."

"I'll not be voting," said Nicola, also 21. "I'm not really interested in it. I don't really know anything about it."

She said the only parties which she had heard of were the SDLP and Sinn Fein, "but I don't really know the difference between them".

Does she walk past those posters of Reilly and McCallister and not even see them? She isn't likely to see many of Wells, since there are so few of them on display, which is perhaps a credit to the DUP man.

Another young woman I met said she had not made her mind up yet. Marie Claire Bell usually votes for Sinn Fein but might change this time.

"I haven't really thought about it, to be honest," she said. But she gets the impression among friends who are thinking about it that they may change the party they vote for.

"I've heard a lot of people talking about the Greens this time," she added, but admitted that, in the end, she would probably stay with Sinn Fein.

Geraldine Jennings, an English woman new to the local area, said that she would be motivated in how she voted by her concerns for the education system, the health service and care for the homeless.

"I'm not very clued-up on the parties over here and I haven't seen a lot about it," she added.

She watched the big televised debates but "didn't actually learn a lot" from them.

"I think it would be nice if everyone just got on and voted for the benefit of the country and the benefit of the people," explained Geraldine, who is currently leaning towards Alliance's Patrick Brown and the Green Party's John Hardy.

I went over to Strangford and met Freda Sharvin coming out of Kevin Og's shop and asked her if she was getting the same impression as myself - that interest in the election was low.

"I'm definitely interested," she said. "I'm voting SDLP, for Colin McGrath. I'll go down the list and, after the SDLP, I'll probably vote Alliance, because I'm trying to keep out the normal politics, you know?"

She said she thought the SDLP had been steadfast throughout the peace process, and that is what had impressed her about the party.

What about the abortion issue that gained momentum during this election? Does that matter to her?

"Well, it does in a way," Freda replied. "It's a big issue and it has to be thrashed out, and no doubt it will be."

Does she think the SDLP is on the wrong side of that argument?

"Maybe, it's difficult one," she said, adding no more on the contentious issue.

Canvassing around Strangford is difficult for the parties, Freda conceded, so she was not surprised that only two of them had made it to her door - Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

"I'd say the unionists would not bother with me - it's too far for them to walk," she explained.

Certainly, Reilly, McKee, McCallister and Wells would get some credit for effort if they knocked on her door.

Kevin Kearney, meanwhile, was well-placed to pick up the general mood of the Strangford area from behind the counter in his shop.

"I'm picking up no buzz about the election at all and certainly no one is buying the papers to read about the election," he said. "It's very low key. This is the lowest-key election I have seen here."

The cold wind blowing down Newcastle's Main Street could have lifted you off your feet and skinned you before it set you down again, but there were a few people about - and it was not politics that they were discussing. When asked, however, Paula expressed disappointment with the situation here.

"Not much changes in Northern Ireland and that's it," she said. "It's disappointing. I simply vote because so much went in to getting the vote. I would use it in case it was used by other people if I didn't. But I do feel it is a waste of time."

Fiona Ogle added: "Bread-and-butter issues are what matter to me - keeping food on the table. It literally comes down to that and I don't think some of the politicians in Northern Ireland are interested in those issues. It's more 'them and us' still."

Driving around the area, I saw little political activity. The parties seemed to be leaving it to the posters to remind people that an election is coming.

They should worry about apathy. This is a constituency of young people, with an average age of 36, and these are the least inclined to turn out on the day.

It is also a predominantly Catholic constituency in which the SDLP and Sinn Fein are safe. It is traditionally more constitutional nationalist than republican, but that distinction is now dissolving.

When I eventually find a candidate knocking doors, it is a confident Colin McGrath, who will probably sail with ease into Stormont.

I join him on Angela Craig's doorstep, near the Strangford Road out of Downpatrick. Angela has the SDLP in her blood, yet she and Colin insist that what really matters is local issues. "I believe in them," said Angela. "Because they get things done if you bring a problem to them."

Colin added: "People want service. They are tired of the wider political story in Northern Ireland, but they want that person they can go to if they have a local issue on their street. You deal with local issues for local people. That's what they put you there for, and if you are not doing that, you are in the wrong job."

I phoned the DUP and Sinn Fein and asked them to let me know if any of their candidates were out canvassing. Neither of them called me back.

I sense that the election in South Down lacks passion. Part of that is founded on our political parties thinking they can take the result for granted, while others are making a hopeless token effort. Part of it is people who would like things to be different not believing their votes will change anything. And part of it is plain, old-fashioned lack of interest.

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