Ahead of Thursday’s Assembly election vote, political editor Liam Clarke finds that bread and butter issues dominate the minds of people in the North Antrim area
Going by the couple I met on a canvass in Portglenone, unionist voters are pretty much resigned to Sinn Fein in Government.
I noticed the same thing last year when I accompanied Jim Allister on a canvass for the Westminster election.
Very few people seemed to switch on to his party’s original core message that, thanks to the past involvement of some of its leaders in the IRA, Sinn Fein should not be in Government.
Yet Mr Allister got 7,114 votes then, and that is more than enough to get him into the Assembly on the first count if he repeats the performance on Thursday.
He seems to recognise the popular resignation to Sinn Fein’s presence on the Executive and to tailoring his pitch accordingly.
“The issues on the doorsteps are jobs, education, and health. Health is a very big issue. Waste in Government is certainly an issue. People get cross when they look at things getting squeezed when there seems to be plenty of money for trivia,” said Mr McAllister.
At the home of Cliff McFettridge in Portglenone, he started off by briefly explaining the single transferable vote system, and then made his pitch, saying the parties at Stormont “are very good at spending your money and my money”.
“Precisely” said Mr McFettridge with some enthusiasm, before going on to talk about the problems he’s had getting planning permission for his garage.
Sinn Fein never came up, and when I asked him about it he said: “We have to accept it. I want peace.”
Asked why he was voting TUV then, he said he knew members, was impressed with Allister and “I want politicians who will work to get more money for ordinary people, not just themselves.” A couple of other voters, who didn’t want to be named, said the same.
Allister has a strong personal reputation from his days as a poll- topping DUP MEP; people like him and he is tapping into a widespread sentiment that Stormont is a gravy train for the parties in Government.
His basic message that Stormont isn’t working played well, as did the idea of a voluntary coalition which could be voted out of office, but it didn’t necessarily add up to wanting to sling Sinn Fein out on its ear at all costs.
Daithai McKay, the lead Sinn Fein candidate in the constituency, gets the same impression.
He reckoned that around 30% of people visiting his advice centres were probably unionist by background.
He said some tell him they would like a party to the left of the existing unionist ones, but he wasn’t predicting too much cross-community voting just yet, but he and party colleague Monica Digney sensed a lot less hostility.
A large chunk of the Glens of Antrim has been transferred out of North Antrim, reducing the nationalist vote and making it doubtful that both McKay and Declan O’Loan can be re-elected. Allister could get one of their seats, probably O’Loan’s. Nationalist turnout has traditionally been a bit low in North Antrim, so McKay and O’Loan are using the prospect of Allister winning a previously nationalist seat to encourage people to make sure they vote. If nationalists come out in sufficient number O’Loan suspects the DUP will lose one of its three seats. Mervyn Storey, the lead DUP candidate, argued that his party, and not Mr Allister’s, is in pole position to oust O’Loan if only it can get its vote out.
“I haven’t been confronted with a tide of Jim Allister support on the doorsteps” he said.
The UUP is also running two candidates and Jayne Dunlop is in the race for Alliance.
It is a crowded field, but all eyes will be on Allister’s performance.
Turnout could indeed be big decisive factor. Heavy rain is predicted for Thursday in Ballymena, always an advantage for the big parties with plenty of cars to run voters to the polls.