Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: Only voter apathy can unseat DUP's Sir Jeffrey in this 'one horse race' in Lagan Valley

  • Outgoing MP: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
  • 2017 result: DUP hold
  • Majority: 26,762 votes
  • Candidates: Robbie Butler (UUP); Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP); Sorcha Eastwood (Alliance); Ally Haydock (SDLP); Gary Hynds (NI Conservatives); Alan Love (UKIP); Gary McCleave (Sinn Fein)
  • Electorate: 72,380
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

There was speculation last year that the Lagan Valley parliamentary constituency could be abolished under a proposal to redraw electoral boundaries.

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It is still, however, very much with us, in all its splendour; rolling hills, lush, fertile farmland, picturesque villages such as Moira, Hillsborough and Dromore, the city of Lisburn in its centre and of course the river it's named after, winding its way from Slieve Croob in the Dromara Hills towards Belfast.

These are all fixtures of this not-quite-urban, not-quite-rural place - and it's tempting to suggest that, as long as the constituency exists, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will be its MP.

The area, a fusion of south Antrim and north Down, had 72,380 registered electors at the last Westminster election, with just over 45,000 of those turning out on the day.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

It has been in unionist hands since it was created nearly 37 years ago, with Sir Jeffrey the parliamentary representative for 22 of those years since replacing the late Jim Molyneaux in 1997.

His record makes grim reading for the other candidates; in general elections, Sir Jeffrey often gets more votes than his rivals combined - and two years ago, even when the RHI controversy was at its height, he still managed to capture nearly 60% of the turnout, increasing his majority from 2015 to a healthy 19,229.

Furthermore, it's clear that a huge number of constituents are voting for him, rather than the party. Remember, when he was first elected in 1997, he was an Ulster Unionist succeeding the retiring, and hugely popular, party leader.

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When he defected to the DUP (along with the future party leader Arlene Foster) in late 2003, citing disillusionment with the then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble's policies, he took the majority of his supporters with him, including those hitherto disinclined to vote for 'Paisley's lot'.

Local newspaper the Ulster Star believes that the man who, up until parliament was dissolved last month, was Northern Ireland's longest serving current MP, is a "shoo-in" to extend that record this time round.

It isn't a view shared, however, by Robbie Butler of the Ulster Unionists.

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Robbie Butler

Mr Butler finished runner-up - albeit a distant runner-up - to the DUP peer two years ago, polling 7,533 votes to 26,762 in what has always been a unionist stronghold.

But he said: "I'm confident that people want change, that people in Lagan Valley realise the Ulster Unionists are the party they can trust to deliver that change."

The MLA who, at 47, is more than 10 years younger than the outgoing MP, added that the Ulster Unionists' success in local council elections is proof his party is on an upward trajectory.

"Here in Lagan Valley, people recognise that under my leadership the UUP team puts people first before party, and will protect democracy and Northern Ireland's place in the UK."

Mr Butler, who is the UUP's spokesperson on mental health and welfare, has been here before, but it's a new experience for the woman representing the party that finished third last time out. Aaron McIntyre polled a respectable 4,996 votes for Alliance in 2017 but has now passed the baton to party colleague Sorcha Eastwood, who currently serves on Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council.

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Sorcha Eastwood

If it all boiled down to social media, Ms Eastwood would give Sir Jeffrey quite a run for his money; she has over 13,400 Twitter followers.

The much higher-profile DUP man has over 18,600 followers, with Mr Butler trailing well behind those two with fewer than 2,000.

Ms Eastwood will certainly be using the medium to get her message across and is no stranger to feisty encounters.

"No one seat belongs to a party or to a person, no matter how long they have held that," she said.

Historically, however, there has only been one horse in the race.

Indeed, the only potential stumbling block for the DUP 'thoroughbred' could be voter apathy.

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