Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: 'Force of nature' Carla Lockhart looking runaway favourite to hold seat for DUP in Upper Bann

  • Outgoing MP: David Simpson (DUP)
  • 2017 result: DUP hold
  • Majority: 7,992
  • Candidates: Carla Lockhart (DUP), John O'Dowd (SF), Doug Beattie (UUP), Dolores Kelly (SDLP), Eoin Tennyson (Alliance)
  • Electorate: 80,168
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

David Simpson's extramarital affair with a younger party councillor rocked the DUP in Upper Bann.

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It breathed a sigh of relief when the gospel-singing Free Presbyterian, who had form preaching morality to others, eventually decided he wouldn't contest this election.

This is a safe DUP seat. Simpson boasted an almost 8,000-strong majority over Sinn Fein last time round, and he was 14,000 ahead of the Ulster Unionists in 2017.

But the gap between the two unionist parties was just 2,000 in 2015 and, with candidate Doug Beattie a much more high-profile figure now, the party felt a tad jittery at the prospect of Simpson standing again.

It didn't want to risk shedding support in a constituency it famously won from David Trimble 14 years ago.

There was intense speculation that Diane Dodds or Arlene Foster might secure the DUP nomination. Local MLA Johnny Buckley was in the mix. But once she threw her hat into the ring, the DUP just couldn't look past Carla Lockhart. She is a force of nature in the constituency.

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Carla Lockhart

As a new mum, some in the party wondered if she would want a job which would take her away half the week from her five-month-old son Charlie.

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Those who know her never doubted that Lockhart wouldn't pass up the opportunity to go to Westminster.

Her rise in the party has been remarkable given that she began working for the DUP as an assistant on a three-month trial in the office of former MLA Stephen Moutray.

She has rocketed ahead of all the men who once surrounded her. She became a councillor aged 22, Craigavon's youngest ever mayor, an MLA in 2016 and - unless there is a political earthquake in Upper Bann next month - she will become its next MP.

"I'm taking nothing for granted," she said. "I've worked hard to get where I am, and I'll work hard for every vote." Not even the DUP's staunchest opponents dispute Lockhart's work ethic.

Upper Bann includes three towns: Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge. The first is DUP territory, but unionist voters in the other two can fluctuate between the parties.

Lockhart says Brexit is being raised on the doorsteps, but not as much as the suspension of devolution. "There is so much frustration about Stormont, people want it back up and running - businesses in particular stress that," she said.

If elected to Westminster, securing a perinatal palliative care hospice, a maternal mental health unit, and improved childcare facilities will be her main focus.

"I know Upper Bann is a polarised constituency, but I genuinely want to be an MP who delivers for everybody," she added.

John O'Dowd may have been beaten by Michelle O'Neill for the Sinn Fein vice-presidency, but he is telling nationalist voters this is an election he can win.

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John Odowd

"Sinn Fein are 10,000 votes ahead of the SDLP in this constituency and I am the only pro-Remain candidate with a realistic opportunity to unseat the DUP Brexiteers," he said.

"Upper Bann has been DUP dominated for some time now. The party may have changed the personalities in this contest with David Simpson stepping aside for Carla Lockhart, but the pro-Brexit, pro-austerity DUP politics remain the same."

Voters can send a message to London, Dublin and Brussels that they "reject Brexit, reject the toxic DUP/Tory pact and are opposed to the ongoing austerity cuts to our front-line public services", he said.

But unlike some other constituencies, the nationalist share of the vote hasn't risen in Upper Bann over the past 15 years. O'Dowd needs a very even split between the DUP and UUP if he's to take the seat, and that seems unlikely.

Despite his military background, some suspect that Doug Beattie is just too liberal for this constituency.

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Doug Beattie

He argues that he is disadvantaged because the DUP will run a "negative campaign" locally.

"I'm expecting a DUP graph out soon claiming that Sinn Fein could win the seat. That tactic makes Upper Bann a difficult constituency for us," he said.

"It plays to voters' fears because they want representation and not an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP. I believe I'm a strong candidate. I've lived and worked outside Northern Ireland.

"If voters look at that - if they look at the policies and personalities in this election and reject the fear factor - then I think they'll vote Ulster Unionist. I am the only person who can take the seat off the DUP."

At the last Assembly election the SDLP's Dolores Kelly did what her party had never before done. She won back the seat she had lost to Sinn Fein two years previously.

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Dolores Kelly

Kelly said people are engaged at the doors and "rather than us having to check they're on the electoral register, they're bringing it up".

Taking a break from canvassing to buy her team ice-cream at Caffola's in Lurgan, the SDLP woman noted that her party had a very successful council election in May, winning two new seats and losing a third by just 16 votes. But she acknowledges that, when it comes to Westminster, Upper Bann is a unionist seat.

In reality, she is running to protect the SDLP vote and increase her chances of holding onto her Stormont seat at the next Assembly election.

The Alliance vote in Upper Bann also grew significantly in the council poll and the party's flag-bearer is 21-year-old Eoin Tennyson, who hails from the village of Maghery.

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Eoin Tennyson

He reckons he was the first villager to join Alliance but he did so because he was so fed up with the traditional parties.

"Climate change, marriage equality, and a woman's right-to-choose on abortion were the issues which mattered to me, and motivated me to join Alliance two years ago," he said. "The party has been recruiting very strongly in Upper Bann."

He insists that Alliance is the alternative to "a Brexit DUP MP whose party has gambled with jobs and livelihoods, and a Sinn Fein MP who won't be in Parliament to take part in key votes and represent constituents". Tennyson, who is on a graduate training programme with accountancy firm Deloitte, is a massively impressive and articulate young politician who is going places. But to Westminster as MP for Upper Bann isn't one of them.

Carla Lockhart seems unstoppable in the race for this seat.

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