Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

South Down: Sinn Fein's Hazzard beats SDLP in close contest

  • Eligible electorate: 79,175
  • Votes polled: 49,971
  • Valid votes: 49,762
  • Turnout: 63.11%
  • Majority: 1,620

By John Mulgrew

Chris Hazzard’s victory speech at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast was short and succinct – perhaps due to his win being a significantly closer affair than he would have liked.

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The Sinn Fein MP paid tribute to those who voted for him, saying it was reinforced by those who were standing up to the problems with Brexit.

“I think what are seeing with the politics in South Down, is people in the light of the Brexit catastrophe have stood up for the interests of the people in South Down,” he said.

It was very much seen as Mr Hazzard’s seat to lose, this time around. And it was surprising then that his votes reduced and margin narrowed, just 1,600 votes ahead of his SDLP rival, Michael Savage – arguably less of a familiar face than the former MP Margaret Ritchie, who held the seat until 2017.

Mr Savage secured 14,517 votes, and while down from 2017 figures, the distance between the two parties was squeezed.

Chris Hazzard’s unseating of the formerly safe SDLP seat came quickly in the space of two years – turning a 6,000 vote lag into a 2,500 majority in 2017.

Just two years ago an emotional Ms Ritchie – now in the upper echelons of the House of Lords as Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick – at the Eikon Exhibition Centre outside Lisburn then left front line politics in her native South Down after defeat at the hands of the rising Sinn Fein politician.

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This time around, Glyn Hanna for the DUP was certainly a much less familiar face than former health minister Jim Wells, who contested the seat up until 2017 when first-timer, Diane Forsythe, stood for the party.

Mr Hanna polled fewer votes than Ms Forsythe, managing just over 7,600. But while it was unlikely to ever be their night, Alliance more than trebled its numbers – rising from 1,814 in 2017 to 6,916 for candidate Patrick Brown. It was yet another success story in terms of numbers for the party, which saw Stephen Farry elected in North Down while it almost doubled its share of the vote in East Antrim.

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Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard speaks after winning the South Down seat at the Titanic exhibition centre, Belfast, for the 2019 General Election. Photo credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Upon holding his South Down seat, Mr Hazzard said: “I want to thank the people of South Down for electing me. It’s a great privilege, and has been for the last two years, to represent the people of South Down.”

In South Down the fears over Brexit had been keenly felt, similar to another constituency with a direct border with the Republic of Ireland in Foyle.

Once a bastion of the SDLP under Eddie McGrady, South Down also counted the controversial Enoch Powell as a former MP for the UUP in the 1970s and 80s.

SDLP candidate Michael Savage said on the doorsteps there was an “overwhelming feeling that they were looking for an MP to take their seat”.

“People knew that I would genuinely represent everyone. I’m also a pro-life candidate, and that was a big issue on the doorsteps.

“I’m happy with the campaign we fought. I’m used to it as a former chief executive of the party but it was strange running a national campaign as a candidate, but I really enjoyed it."

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