Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: Brexit fears will fuel battle between nationalist parties in South Down

  • Outgoing MP: Chris Hazzard (Sinn Fein)
  • 2017 result: Sinn Fein gain
  • Majority: 2,446 votes
  • Candidates: Paul Brady (Aontu), Patrick Brown (Alliance), Glyn Hanna (DUP), Chris Hazzard (Sinn Fein), Jill Macauley (UUP), Michael Savage (SDLP)
  • Electorate: 75,685
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

From the mountains of Mourne to the coastal waters of Kilkeel and on to the border city of Newry, the constituency of South Down covers quite a variety of Northern Ireland life.

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Once a bastion of the SDLP under Eddie McGrady and then Margaret Ritchie, South Down also counts the controversial Enoch Powell as a former MP for the UUP in the 1970s and 80s.

McGrady had a strong personal following before Ritchie took over the reins, but a jump of 8,000 votes in favour of Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard saw him take the seat from the SDLP in 2017.

With Mrs Ritchie having stepped away from local politics and entered the House of Lords, the role of SDLP challenger now falls to the media-savvy Michael Savage.

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Michael Savage

In South Down, fears over Brexit are being more keenly felt than elsewhere and, similar to another constituency with a direct border with the Republic of Ireland in Foyle, it's shaping up to be a straight fight between the two main nationalist parties.

According to the Newry Reporter, Mr Savage's popularity on the ground around the border areas, where he works in local media, could see the SDLP go close to getting the seat back in their hands.

"It would still be a surprise if Savage managed to claw back enough of that 2,000-plus majority to unseat the outgoing MP, though," said editor Paul Welsh.

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Mr Hazzard is still well placed to hold power in a seat that was a long-term target for his party.

After working hard on the ground over the last decade, they won't let go easily, having finally taken what former MP Mrs Ritchie described as an extremely varied constituency.

"From Crossgar in the north to parts of Newry city in the south, Newcastle in the east and Katesbridge in the west, this is a very diverse area," she said, taking us on a whistlestop tour.

"There are around 10-12 major settlements, including towns like Downpatrick, parts of Ballynahinch, Warrenpoint. It's a really wide-ranging portfolio. South Down has always relied heavily on the public sector for employment, and tourism has become increasingly important, particularly with the Mourne Mountains and the interest in St Patrick.

"Much of the constituency is rural, and there is a big reliance on fishing along the coastline, particularly in Kilkeel and Ardglass. Carlingford Lough provides a sea border, so Brexit issues will impact."

South Down transcends more than one council area meaning there's often little in common between the north, which gravitates naturally towards Downpatrick, and the south, where Newry and Warrenpoint face real issues over Brexit and the border - all of which plays into Sinn Fein hands.

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Chris Hazzard

"In 2017 people made history in electing a Sinn Fein MP," said Mr Hazzard, launching his re-election campaign in Newcastle.

"We made a pledge to the people of South Down that we would stand up for their interests, go to Brussels, London and Dublin and fight for their concerns, that we would protect the Good Friday Agreement, stand up for the all-Ireland economy and reject any hardening of the border.

"Those commitments have all been delivered upon."

Mr Hazzard's hopes of maintaining his majority could depend on how much damage can be done to his vote by the anti-abortion republican party Aontu's candidate, newcomer Paul Brady.

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Paul Brady

If Brady fulfils his party leader Peadar Toibin's promise and can hit a predicted four-figure tally by taking pro-life voters away from Sinn Fein, it could be tighter at the top than last time out.

In Patrick Brown, the Alliance Party have a candidate who certainly got his name out there with his personal boycott of Tayto crisps over the Tandragee company's dispute with a Ballynahinch business which had been selling the separate Republic of Ireland brand north of the border.

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Patrick Brown

But when it comes to the crunch, his party has always struggled to make an impression close to the border.

Traditionally unionist areas like Saintfield and Dromore have been taken into other constituencies over the years and the unionist vote, which hit a height of 25,000 in the 1980s, has dwindled to around 10,000 these days.

Nationalists make up 75% of the population - only Foyle has a higher concentration.

The DUP have turned to Glyn Hanna and the Ulster Unionists are running Jill Macauley, both well respected in their council areas, but both likely to lag well behind.

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Jill Macauley

"Unionists in South Down feel they have been left with no representation whatsoever," said Mr Hanna.

"Chris Hazzard has done nothing to reach out to us and that's a disappointment."

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Glyn Hanna

Mr Savage is calling on voters to give him the lift he needs by remembering the service provided by the SDLP in years gone by.

"That level of representation has been missing since 2017 and I'm determined to bring that back to the people," he said.

Mr Savage needs a lot to fall his way if that ambition is to be met - will enough disenfranchised Remain unionists support the SDLP in an anti-Sinn Fein vote after they pulled out of North Belfast?

It's as doubtful as Sinn Fein will be confident.

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