Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

Constituency profile: Unionist stronghold of North Down facing growing threat from surge in Alliance support

  • Outgoing MP: Lady Sylvia Hermon
  • Result: Independent unionist hold
  • Majority: 1,208
  • Candidates: Alex Easton (DUP), Alan Chambers (UUP), Stephen Farry (Alliance), Matthew Robinson (Conservative)
  • Electorate: 64,334
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

North Down has almost slipped under the radar in this election. With bigger, sexier battles being fought elsewhere, only a fleeting glance has been paid to the constituency which definitely will have a new MP come Friday.

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After Lady Sylvia Hermon retired, it seemed straightforward.

The DUP's Alex Easton had looked a dead cert.

His rise has been remarkable. In two years, he almost doubled his vote and reduced the independent unionist MP's 9,000-strong majority to just 1,200 in 2017.

He's not his party's most high-profile MLA but, as a constituency worker, he's unrivalled. Lady Hermon cited personal reasons for stepping down, but Easton's ascent surely played no small part in her decision.

Alex Easton

Although a solidly unionist constituency, North Down voted Remain but, at 52%, not by a massive margin.

Given the outgoing MP's high profile on Brexit in Parliament in recent months, I suspect she would have been comfortably re-elected had she risked it.

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Her decision not to was a godsend for the DUP.

While Easton remains the favourite to take the seat, Alliance's Stephen Farry is hugely helped by the Green Party's decision not to run.

There are very positive noises on the ground from Alliance activists who think his chances may well be better than Naomi Long's in East Belfast.

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Stephen Farry

They are two very different people. Long is the charismatic, popular, fiery figure who shines up front; Farry is the cerebral one with a more conservative style. But North Down mightn't be averse to that. Until her Brexit interventions, Lady Hermon was generally a very low-key politician.

In the 2017 Assembly election, the DUP was on 38% to a combined 32% for the Alliance and the Greens, although of course not every Green voter is guaranteed to switch to Farry.

But if you add on the votes for the SDLP and Sinn Fein (neither of which are standing this time) to the Alliance-Green tally, it puts that unofficial Remain coalition neck-and-neck with the DUP.

Farry says he hopes to secure "the overwhelming majority of Green votes".

His campaign would have been helped by Lady Hermon's public endorsement, although he says he never expected that since fierce independence has always been her guiding principle.

Lady Sylvia Hermon

"She is a very hard act to follow, I don't think she can ever be replaced. But North Down is somewhere which likes modern, progressive, reasonable politics and I'm best fit to reflect those values," he said.

"This is a two-horse race between me, as a strong pro-Remain voice protecting the Good Friday Agreement, and the DUP."

Easton's campaign is based on "defending the Union" and his constituency work as first a councillor, and then as an MLA for almost two decades.

"I'm not paying attention to my opponents' campaigns, I'm focusing on my own," he said. "I've knocked 34,000 doors so far. Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Greens pulling out in favour of Alliance is up to them. It doesn't bother me in the slightest."

Easton says that Ulster Unionist candidate, Alan Chambers, has "a strong personal vote in the area, but I haven't seen him around doors, he's just done a leaflet drop".

Chambers, who for years was a poll-topping independent councillor, has grown the UUP's vote significantly since he joined the party in 2015.

"I don't like people knocking my door so I don't impose that on them," he said. "I leaflet and walk up and down the streets. If residents want to come out and engage with me, that's great."

Alan Chambers

He quips that he doesn't "feel the need to take the family dog on a canvass" - the DUP man was accompanied by his border collie wearing a red-white-and-blue 'Vote Alex Easton' scarf recently.

The UUP candidate finds Alliance's talk of "a two-horse race" very disrespectful.

"Voters will decide how many horses are in the race and which one wins," he added.

"North Down is a unionist constituency and it will return a unionist. The choice is between my unionism - progressive, tolerant, and inclusive - and the DUP's characterised by failure, incompetence and the whiff of scandal."

Co Down Spectator editor, Paul Symington, says the key to the North Down election battle is where Lady Hermon's votes go.

"Alan Chambers is popular and highly respected in the constituency," he said.

"Easton versus Farry is a very black-and-white battle, it's Leave versus Remain. Alliance is on the up in North Down. They gained four seats, and the DUP lost four, in the council elections. They are so confident because of that surge in their vote."

Symington points to "a lot of dirty tricks" in the election.

"It's not approaching North Belfast levels, but it's still most unpleasant," he said.

"Banners have been erected attacking Alliance, DUP posters have been defaced, and some Ulster Unionist canvassers have been harassed.

"That all indicates the nervousness among the parties' supporters in North Down."

Also standing in the constituency is Northern Ireland Conservative candidate Matthew Robinson.

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