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General Election 2019

Constituency Profile: DUP's Shannon all but certain to see off Alliance in Strangford

Constituency Profile: Strangford

Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Strangford comes with as strong a guarantee as possible of returning a unionist MP.

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Wrapping itself around the lough, the constituency was held from its creation in 1983 until 1997 by the Ulster Unionist Party's John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney, who secured five election wins in succession with barely a sweat.

The onset of the new millennium saw a tide of change as Iris Robinson, wife of former First Minister Peter Robinson, pinched the seat for the DUP and David McNarry's attempt to replace John Taylor at Westminster fell short by just over 1,000 votes.

The Ulster Unionist Party has barely had a look-in since.

The DUP grip on the area, which takes in the main towns of Newtownards and Comber, rural areas and villages of north Down and the Ards peninsula, has been tight, particularly since Jim Shannon took over from the controversy-ridden Mrs Robinson in 2010.

Last time out, the DUP man secured 62% of the vote. With still a week to go before the December 12 poll, to quote Mike Nesbitt, his UUP rival last time around, it looks like "Shannon's home in a boat".

It is surprising, therefore, that Strangford is one of the most heavily populated constituencies when it comes to candidates.

Eight names are on the ballot paper and the real interest on a local level will be watching whether Alliance candidate Kellie Armstrong can build on her party's European election surge and further successes at local government level by stretching her lead over the Ulster Unionists, who have dropped to third in the pecking order over the last two decades.

Killinchy man Philip Smith, a veteran on the political scene around the area, will be flying the UUP flag, though he lost his MLA seat in the Assembly elections of 2017.

Joe Boyle consistently polls well for the SDLP, sweeping up what nationalist voters there are in the area, concentrated mainly around Portaferry. His dogged determination wins many friends - and that is an odd thing about Strangford. It is a friendly election campaign, full of genuine conversations, with election posters kept to a minimum. So close to Belfast, but so different in attitude.

Jim Shannon
Jim Shannon

Another factor stacking against those lining up to challenge the DUP in Strangford is that only in north Antrim did a greater percentage of voters opt to vote Leave in the 2016 EU referendum.

For Shannon's closest challenger, capitalising on the voters who have switched their European view from Leave to Remain will be key.

"We're in this to give Jim a good run for his money," said Kellie Armstrong. "He has a strong majority and we respect him for that, but we've been slowly eating into that.

"The local government elections gave us a surge. I've been finding that a lot of people, particularly from the farming community, who had voted to leave the EU are now thinking that this is their chance to show that they've changed their mind.

"Issues such as health and education are concerns. Though they're devolved matters, people are starting to think that a stronger voice at Westminster will help speed up a return of the Assembly."

Mr Shannon, however, remains the key factor in the constituency.

Indeed, he was singled out for his hard-working approach by DUP leader Arlene Foster at last week's party manifesto launch.

"It's Shannon's to lose - it's just a question over what the majority will be," said Paul Symington, editor at local newspaper The Newtownards Chronicle.

"Alliance have made good gains and it's a question of whether they can continue that surge, but Jim has an enormous personal vote. He spends all his time on the road. There are representatives who are hands-on with their community, then there's Jim Shannon. He takes it to a whole new level.

"We're as surprised as everyone else that UKIP are standing. Joe Boyle plugs away for the SDLP every election, Philip Smith for the UUP is articulate and competent and it's natural territory for the Greens. We have the longest coastline of any constituency and as they (the Greens) are not standing in north Down, they have to maintain a good presence."

Mr Shannon is taking nothing for granted and has racked up more than 25,000 steps a day on the campaign trail.

"There have been a lot of hard, honest conversations," he said.

Kellie Armstrong
Kellie Armstrong

"It's clear the people want a return of the Assembly and they're not afraid to tell me.

"Our position on that is clear, as is our position on the Union, which I'm finding is even more important to people in Strangford than Brexit.

"There's anger at Boris Johnson. As one person told me, he would take your Alsatian for a walk and bring home a Chihuahua and expect you not to mind.

"I hope to keep on working to show him the people of Strangford are no lesser unionists than people in the rest of the UK."

Hard work brings rewards, so the DUP will be expecting Shannon to be returned to Westminster.

Factfile

Outgoing MP: Jim Shannon (DUP)

2017 result: DUP hold

Majority: 18,343

Candidates: Grant Abraham (NI Conservatives), Kellie Armstrong (Alliance), Joe Boyle (SDLP), Ryan Carlin (Sinn Fein), Maurice McCartney (Green Party), Jim Shannon (DUP), Philip Smith (UUP), Robert Stephenson (UKIP)

Electorate: 64,327

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