Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

Constituency profile: A tough tussle looms in South Antrim as three parties believe they can win it

  • Outgoing: Paul Girvan (DUP)
  • 2017 result: DUP gain from UUP
  • Majority: 3,208 votes
  • Candidates: John Blair (Alliance), Paul Girvan (DUP), Roisin Lynch (SDLP), Declan Kearney (Sinn  Fein), Danny Kinahan (UUP)
  • Electorate: 68,244
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

It is a cold, grey, miserable Thursday morning in Randalstown. John Blair has just pulled in to the John Street car park. It is not quite 10.30am. He is early. His Alliance Party election team, complete with leader Naomi Long, hasn't arrived yet.

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He is keen, determined and the only thing in his mind is that every vote counts.

"I'm genuinely encouraged by the fact that people want change," he said. "That's why I'm here to show as many people as possible we can deliver that change."

There is no doubt he has a mountain to climb in voting terms. The Alliance Party polled just over 3,000 in 2017.

But the gap has been closing at a remarkable pace and the appearance of the party leader alongside the Alliance candidate indicates that this is a seat they now think they can win.

"The landscape has shifted; 2017 will have no bearing on this election," said Mr Blair (below).

Looking to the last council election, when Alliance picked up an extra four seats, he is optimistic momentum is there.

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"Alliance in South Antrim has a buzz about it," he said. "I've never seen so many people join in the space of 12 months. We're the only credible party to vote to stop Brexit. Voters are intelligent and they can see our message is strong and clear. We all believe in what we say."

South Antrim has gone under the radar as a key constituency, but in a couple of days' time a fascinating battle will play out.

Away from the rivalries around Belfast and in Foyle, this is perhaps the most hard-fought constituency and three parties think they can win.

It has been a game of pass the parcel between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP for the last two decades.

William McCrea won it for the DUP for the first time in a by-election in 2000, after the death of Clifford Forsythe, by less than 1,000 votes.

He lost it to David Burnside in 2001 by just over 1,000 votes, then won it back comfortably in 2005.

In 2010, Reg Empey again came close for the UUP but it wasn't until 2015 that Danny Kinahan managed to beat Mr McCrea by just under 1,000 votes. He then lost out to Paul Girvan of the DUP in 2017.

Danny Kinahan

"I have unfinished business," said Mr Kinahan, who had a similar message in the battle for votes.

"I know I need every vote I can get," he said. "But I've shown before that I'm the candidate who can beat the DUP.

"I didn't enjoy losing last time, but anyone unhappy with the DUP has the chance to put that right."

While Paul Girvan might not be seen as one of the big hitters in the DUP at Westminster, it is his role as a constituency-based MP that wins him support.

Paul Girvan

"I never take anything for granted," he said.

"Issues are being brought to me over health and education and I'm seeing more traction for John Blair than Danny Kinahan.

"There's no doubting Alliance are making inroads. But we need a single, strong voice at Westminster. Lone voices do not hold much influence."

The two nationalist parties are fishing from a smaller pool of voters around Crumlin, the outskirts of Glengormley, Randalstown and Toomebridge.

Sinn Fein is again standing party chairperson Declan Kearney, who polled 18% in 2017. He will be hoping to hold that, which will be important for retaining his Assembly seat here should another Stormont poll be called in the near future.

Declan Kearney

For the SDLP, local councillor Roisin Lynch had a decent outing in Antrim town at the local government election in May. The SDLP's vote in 2017 was 5.5%.

SDLP South Antrim candidate Roisin Lynch

Is it a two-horse race between Girvan and Kinahan? Is it a two-horse race between Girvan and Blair? Add up the key players, and it makes a three-horse race.

Journalist Gillian McDade, who lives in Ballyclare, runs the South Antrim Vox website. She said it is an area which offers a bit of everything and that is why it can often be too close to call.

"There's an extremely mixed group of voters here," she said.

"And what we have is five well-respected candidates. Paul Girvan is very active around the constituency and Danny Kinahan has built up a strong personal following. John Blair is relatively new on the scene but has made a big impression, Declan Kearney polls consistently well while Roisin Lynch is another with a great pedigree on a local level.

"You still have to have Girvan down as the favourite."

Girvan is out in front as they head for the line. Kinahan has got a new lease of life and previous winning form while Blair is coming up fast in the rails.

The big question is whether either of the two chasers have that final burst of speed in the closing stages.

Despite their best efforts in a well-run race, Girvan should have the stamina to stay in front by a head at the winning post.

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