Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: No change likely in Newry and Armagh, but some Sinn Fein voters ponder a switch to DUP

  • Outgoing MP: Mickey Brady (Sinn Fein)
  • Majority: 12,489
  • Candidates: Mickey Brady (Sinn Fein), Peter Byrne (SDLP), Jackie Coade (Alliance), William Irwin (DUP),Martin Kelly (Aontu), Sam Nicholson (UUP)
  • Electorate: 83,462

By Noel McAdam

It is a cuttingly cold day in Newry and a Catholic woman is telling me she and many friends are preparing to vote for the DUP.

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"But don't tell my dad," swiftly added Brenda Burke, who lives outside the city. "He would kill me.

"I am a little confused but I think I probably will vote and if I do the only choice for me now is the DUP because they have stood up clearly for the rights of the unborn child.

"I usually vote Sinn Fein and in the past have voted for the SDLP, but no more because they have let abortion in and that has upset me. Even in that one-day Assembly the SDLP just walked out.

"I know a lot of my friends who are Catholics feel the same way."

But it will take more than Brenda and all her friends to unseat Sinn Fein's Mickey Brady.

In the constituency of Newry and Armagh it would take an upheaval.

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Brady had almost double the vote of the DUP's William Irwin at the last election in 2017 and was some 16,000 votes ahead of the SDLP's Justin McNulty.

The seat has a natural nationalist majority, with the combined vote of SF and the SDLP two years ago amounting to 65%.

So with SF all but assured of first place, interest turns to who will come second in the race, and will the combined unionist vote amount to a third of the total?

In recent years the Ulster Unionists have seen their vote reduced from Danny Kennedy's 16,000-plus in 2015 to just 4,500 with Sam Nicholson as the candidate last time round.

This contest is a virtual re-run of 2017 with Pete Byrne replacing McNulty on the SDLP ticket and Martin Kelly of Aontu the only newcomer.

Brady held the seat in the unexpected 2017 general election after replacing Conor Murphy, who had represented the constituency for a decade from 2005.

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Outgoing MP Mickey Brady of Sinn Fein

Mr Murphy, a former Executive Minister, first took the seat for Sinn Fein after former SDLP deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon retired from politics in 2005 to look after his wife.

So what is the mood in the constituency of two cities ahead of December 12?

The mix takes in anger, uncertainty and apathy.

Sharp-edged showers coming in off Carlingford Lough are leaving shoppers cowering in the Quays and Buttercrane shopping centres and many don't want to be named or to take part at all.

Quite a few of the shoppers I stop are from across the border.

In the Quays, John McAlinden, who lives in Newry, said that he fears Northern Ireland could still slip back to the dark days of the Troubles.

He described the atmosphere as "very mixed, very dangerous".

"You could see the Troubles back, mainly because of Brexit but not only that. The whole thing has been going on too long," he said.

"Sure the Union itself could be broken before they get out of Europe - Scotland could leave the UK before it leaves the EU.

"And with all the mix-up at Westminster there will be a lot of people who will not come out to vote at all, I think. It has become a real laughing stock."

One woman from nearby Warrenpoint who is among those who want to remain anonymous said people are more angry than confused.

"The parties just go for their own agenda rather than anything else and the ordinary people just have to put up with the state of hospitals and schools in decline and cuts left, right and centre," she said.

Apart from the big ticket issues, the main local concern appears to be a vicious spate of break-ins which has plagued a number of towns and villages.

And in Newtownhamilton there is palpable public outrage over proposals for a 'super-dump' just outside the town which they fear would involve hundreds of tonnes of non-recyclable waste.

Nonetheless Brexit appears to be front and centre in most people's minds and the issue they hope most the election will finally sort out.

Mr Brady has attacked Boris Johnson over his recent visit to Tayto Castle in Tandragee without informing him - although Downing Street insisted the election means MPs no longer have to be told.

"He sneaked into Tandragee on an unannounced visit, but he can't escape the fact that the majority of people in the north have rejected the reckless Tory Brexit," he said.

"He may want to avoid the people but he can't avoid the polls."

Mr Johnson said he was unaware Mr Brady, who he referred to as "the honourable member who does not take his seat", had not been informed.

Mr Irwin, meanwhile, has said he believes Brexit will have to be "out of the way" before the Assembly can be restored, but believes EU withdrawal will allow the region's agri-food sector to move towards self-sufficiency.

The DUP candidate added: "Being outside the EU and free from many of the bureaucratic burdens that come with the baggage of EU membership, it is certainly the case that our processors and retailers can source a much greater amount of food home grown within the UK."

The UUP's Sam Nicholson, chair of the party's councillors association, will be hoping to mop up anti-DUP unionist votes along with unionist Remainers coalescing around new leader Steve Aiken's position that staying in the EU is better than Johnson's deal to leave. He has pledged to put people at the very heart of policy in rebuilding his party "from the grassroots up".

Though a largely rural area, it is the only constituency in Northern Ireland with two cities - Armagh and Newry - and only created less than 40 years ago, in 1983 as a result of the increase of Northern Ireland seats from 12 to then 17. Newry was previously part of South Down.

In the 2011 census more than 45% identified as Irish in the constituency, just under 30% as British and just over 26% as Northern Irish.

The area has the highest proportion of Latvian speakers (0.24%) in Northern Ireland, while almost 18% claim to have "some ability" in Irish.

One name which might have been on the polling cards is independent Patrick Clarke who had announced his intention to run but had travelling difficulties and missed the nomination deadline.

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