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Constituency profile: South Down

By David Gordon

Two of Northern Ireland's most high-powered female politicians will be locking horns, with Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane hoping to demolish Margaret Ritchie's winning streak.

This is a competitive seat for Sinn Fein following the retirement of veteran MP Eddie McGrady. Sinn Fein were only 328 votes behind the SDLP in the Assembly election, making this a tough test for the SDLP's new leader. The UUP will also be wanting to narrow the gap with the DUP, who won 18% of the votes in South Down in the last Westminster elections, as opposed to the UUP's 9%.

So which woman is the favourite?

Ritchie is still on a high after her ascension to the top of the SDLP and is likely to be feeling fairly confident that she can firmly hold onto the seat that has been in the party's possession since 1987. Ritchie is hugely popular within her constituency which she has represented for over 20 years. She has also won a lot of support since becoming Social Development Minster.

Ruane shouldn’t be discounted, though?

No — and the power of the slick Sinn Fein election machine cannot be overlooked. The SDLP vote can at times be lethargic and will be up against a Sinn Fein machine that will mobilise huge resources to see Ruane elected. However, Sinn Fein needs more than the traditional Republican vote to take South Down — it needs the middle class to switch allegiance in large numbers and many in the Catholic middle class have been angered by Ruane's stance on the 11-plus.

Who else is in the running?

In the unionist camp the UUP's John McCallister and the DUP's Jim Wells will be fighting it out iwth Ivor McConnell of the TUV to see who will be top dog in South Down unionism. In the 2005 elections Wells increased the DUP vote by 3% and pulled in almost double the votes received by the UUP's Dermot Nesbit.

The UUP will be hoping that McCallister will be able to steal DUP votes and there will be something wrong with the UUP campaign if they cannot narrow the gap. Alliance is fielding former Banbridge schoolteacher David Griffin and standing for the Greens is Down councillor Cadogan Enright.

The word on the streets?

According to the editor of the Down Recorder in Downpatrick, Paul Symington, even though Sinn Fein believe the retirement of Eddie McGrady gives Ruane her best ever chance of taking the South Down seat, it will not be easy.

“Margaret Ritchie is a high profile SDLP politician fighting a seat in the community she was raised in. She will attract a significant anti-Sinn Fein vote from the Unionist community. Also, Ruane is not well liked within the Catholic middle classes because of her stance and handling on the 11-plus and she needs such voters on her side,” he said.

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