Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: Wilson looks safe as houses unless UUP can gain from tactical voting in East Antrim

  • Outgoing MP: Sammy Wilson (DUP)
  • 2017 result: DUP hold
  • Majority: 15,923
  • Candidates: Steve Aiken (UUP), Danny Donnelly (Alliance), Oliver McMullan (Sinn Fein), Angela Mulholland (SDLP), Philip Randle (Green), Aaron Rankin (Conservatives), Sammy Wilson (DUP)
  • Electorate: 63,997

By Noel McAdam

'Nationalists need not apply' is a phrase that could easily be affixed to the election in East Antrim which has always been a unionist battleground.

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Fittingly for a coastal constituency, it would appear the incumbent, Sammy Wilson of the DUP, is yet again home in a boat.

New Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken aims to capsize that outcome, however, mopping up all unionist Remain supporters and encouraging tactical voting by others to wound Wilson.

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New UUP leader Steve Aiken

As his party's most gung-ho Brexiteer, even before Brexit, Wilson will next year have represented East Antrim for 15 years.

In a perfect storm, were unionist votes to divide equally between him and Aiken - they both live in the constituency - Alliance, especially if its recent surge in the Euro and local government elections is repeated, could come through the middle.

In one nasty incident Alliance activists had an egg thrown at them in Carrickfergus last week. But the party has deep roots in the constituency. Veteran standard-bearer Stewart Dickson fought his way into second place behind Wilson in the unexpected 2017 contest (albeit far behind on a 16% vote share compared to Wilson's 57%).

And in the 1997 poll the late Sean Neeson beat the DUP's Jack McKee into third place, though by just a few hundred votes. So what is the public mood?

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People in the centre of Carrick reflect a combustible mix of confusion and anger, apathy and alienation - though everyone I spoke to intends to vote.

Accountant Beverly McCallum, from the town's Sandringham estate, will be out of the country come December 12 but has arranged a postal vote.

"I am hoping common sense will prevail and we will stay in the EU," she said. "My mother many years ago said the 'D' in DUP stood for 'destructive' not democratic and that has been proved. I think a lot of people have changed their minds."

Couple Lee and Leeann Ferguson say any indifference is the product of politicians failing to implement the will of the people.

"I don't follow politics much but they don't seem to take what people want into account, as with same sex marriage, they follow their own religious views rather than people's," said Lee.

"That's what sort of puts people off," Leeann added.

Colin Hermin, from nearby Ballyeaston, said: "I think the whole Brexit mess is the big player in this election but I think it seems we are headed towards a second referendum.

"I do think there is apathy because the politicians do not do anything," the civil servant went on.

Locally the only issue mentioned is the campaign against the Gas Caverns project in Islandmagee, which residents insist would damage a key local beauty spot.

Brexit is front and centre in East Antrim but the central theme is uncertainty.

Businessman Andy Kilpatrick said: "Uncertainty is not good for business at any time. Stability is vital for confidence."

His firm northXsouth is built on supplying consumer goods across the border. But he said the "lion's share" of the business is split between GB and the Republic.

"Our viability is not dependent on any particular flavour of Brexit, but the hope remains our elected representatives can demonstrate the leadership required to form a local government and ensure that our voices are heard loud and clear at regional, national and international level," he said.

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Sammy Wilson, DUP

Sammy Wilson argues that "we have to stop the deal the Prime Minister has which would destroy the Union and also ensure Northern Ireland gets the kind of representation that delivers". But Steve Aiken counters that if Boris Johnson's deal is the only one available it would be better for Northern Ireland to Remain. "The DUP has put the Union under threat and not listened to farmers or the unionist community," he said.

Alliance candidate Danny Donnelly insists a "fair few" on the doorsteps have changed their views and would prefer to stay but also there is "real anger" over the state of patient waiting lists and school budgets "as well as MLAs who won't work together".

East Antrim is also enjoying a wider choice of candidates than other constituencies, with Philip Randle standing for the Greens and Aaron Rankin for the NI Conservatives.

Oliver McMullan is once again holding the ring for Sinn Fein while Ballymoney councillor Angela Mulholland replaces Margaret Anne McKillip on the SDLP ticket.

East Antrim will celebrate its 40th birthday in 2023 and for most of that time, 22 years, its MP was the Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs, whose son, also Roy, is now an MLA.

In 1995 and 2010 boundary changes which brought the loss of parts of Newtownabbey and the adoption of three wards in Moyle made the constituency 4% more Catholic and 4% less Protestant. According to the last census, more than 70% of constituents say they were brought up as Protestants.

Although a coastal area, compete with its own mini-peninsula of Islandmagee, which now hosts the international attraction of the Gobbins cliff path, the feeling of East Antrim is largely urban.

When the sprawl of north Belfast becomes Newtownabbey and spreads seamlessly through Jordanstown and Greenisland to Carrickfergus, the constituency only looks like countryside briefly before you hit the large port town of Larne. Industry along this eastern strip has been denuded since the late 1970s, with the loss of Courtaulds and GEC.

Yet any Brexit bounce is arguably going to work in Wilson's favour in a constituency where 55% voted to leave compared to nearly 45% of Remainers.

Wilson had almost twice the vote of Beggs when he won the seat in 2005 - 15,766 votes against 8,462 - and, despite some slippage to UKIP, has held it solidly ever since. It was one area where the TUV could have been expected to inflict some damage, but didn't.

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