… and the electorate will test the candidates!
Of all the elections in recent years, the electorate in the Downpatrick District Electoral Area will be significantly confronted by having to make stark choices in their selection at the ballot box on Thursday 2 May 2019 as ten candidates will be seeking their votes.
And seven of these candidates may be classed in the ‘young’ category which reflects a healthy interest in politics tinged with a modicum of frustration from this millenium generation.
Will the sparks fly from the political anvil in Newry Mourne and Down District Council and light up a new era of hope, growth and prosperity or will this election see these sparks fizzle out as self-interest, parochialsm and clientelistic principles and other negativities continue to darken the spirits of many voters?
The Downpatrick District Electoral Area has a few issues which have lingered on over the past four years, and some are unresolved. The Downptarick traffic plan, the town Masterplan, antisocial behaviour upsurges, jobs and investment, the erosion of trade in local shops due to internet shopping, the level of social housing and the actual state of the roads are but a few of the key issues. And one noticeable factor too is the tendency for much of the Council business to be Newry-focused. But there have been successes too such as the new Down Leisure Centre and the Downshire hub. So, the fact is, the Downpatrick DEA needs a strong team of councillors fit for purpose.
These unresolved issues may well get up the noses of residents and even councillors in the northern section of the Council area, but Newry is a city and has a strong economic and social critical mass going for it which the rural northern section lacks. And it has a hospital with an A&E… and Downpatrick has one, but with limited opening A&E hours.
So one fact is obvious from the start, the electorate has to chose candidates who can not only represent the Downpatrick area as embassadors, but also those who they believe will work well in a team together with their colleagues to achieve results over the next five years of the term of the council. And working on the Downpatrick DEA forum too which engages in community planning is important alongside with community and business members.
One startling fact about the candidates in the Downpatrick DEA generally is that they all want to make a change for the better to the Downpatrick area, beyond any improvements already completed in the past four years through Newry Mourne and Down District Council, but there is a fine line between promising false hope and saying what is actually deliverable for the Downpatrick area.
SDLP Go With Three.
SDLP candidates in Downpatrick are Dermot Curran, Gareth Sharvin and John Trainor, all sitting councillors. Certainly, in looking at the list of ten candidates for the Downpatrick DEA, a startling fact leaps off the page… most are very young, and they are facing Northern Ireland’s longest serving councillor Dermot Curran who was elected in 1973.
Gareth Sharvin, who works in IT, in the 2014 Down District Council election polled fairly well with 961 First Preference Votes (FPV’s) compared to Dermot Curran’s 1076.
And John Trainor, a youth club leader in Downpatrick, has not yet experienced the full-on rigours of an election having been co-opted during the past council term when Colin McGrath moved to take up a place at Stormont as MLA. If these two younger SDLP candidates poll weakly then it will have a knock-on effect to Dermot Curran’s vote, but he usually gets a strong first preference vote. But the question remains, will the voters show their loyalty, or be swayed by the wide choice available from the other parties.
Factors which will affect the ratings for the SDLP will be the party losing its three MP’s (which includes (Margaret Ritchie in South Down) in the last Westminster election in 2017, its MLA’s along with other parties being grounded by a dormant NI Assembly, the recent courtship between the SDLP and Fianna Fail, and the general slow decline in the party’s performance at the polls.
The 2017 Westminster election saw a significant 2.2% drop in votes for the SDLP going mainly to Sinn Féin.
The other parties are too fighting for basically the fifth seat but given the dynamics of vote transfers, a shock result may even be a reality as the newcomers all battle for votes and to secure a respectable innings in their first election.
Sinn Féin Running Two Candidates In Downpatrick.
Sinn Féin are running with two fresh faced candidates, Oonagh Hanlon, the PA for Emma Rogan MLA, and Jordan Madden, a health care worker in the area. Both have considerable experience in their party and are strong, competent candidates which will challenge the SDLP efforts. There is no doubt the Sinn Féin party machine will be in operation to ensure that these two have a strong canvass across the Downpatrick area.
Their only councillor in the last Council term, Naomi Bailie, was struck down suddenly by a life-threatening attack of Meningitis mid-term and was hoping for a recovery to continue her work as councillor, but she has agreed to step aside for the new candidates to re-establish Sinn Féin’s two-seat position in Downpatrick last held by old guard Eamonn Mac Con Mhide and Liam Johnston in the legacy Down District Council.
The share of the vote of the 2017 Westminster election by Sinn Féin which saw Chris Hazzard elected was 4.7% but the question is, will this trend continue, remain or decrease? If it continues it will cut into the SDLP vote.
Sinn Féin do have support across the Downpatrick area and with the strong growth of the Irish language as an indicator and their demands for a full-on, rights-based NI Assembly, they would be expected to poll strongly given people’s general frustration with the DUP, especially over the RHI controversy.
Enright Goes Again As Independent.
Evergreen Independent Cadogan Enright, who first took over from the retiring Green Party councillor Bill Corry in the legacy council , is certainly looking in a relatively strong position having won the fifth seat in the last election during the transitional election to the new super council (Newry Mourne and Down District Council.)
Councillor Enright appears to have a strong community base and is a keen environmentalist, something many people are warming up to given the issues facing global change. An accountant by profession, he is a lone wolf politician, having parted company with the Green Party, and has served as an Independent since. He has brought forward a considerable number of motions to Council through its term.
Cllr Enright could be involved in a cheek-to-jowl fight for his seat with the SDLP’s latest co-optee, John Trainor, whose mother Anne was an SDLP councillor as was his late grand-father Sean Quinn. Will John Trainor continue the dynasty or will Cllr Enright beat him in a narrow grab for the last seat. But with ten candidates in the Downpatrick DEA, the vote transfers will be all over the place and it will be difficult to predict any results with accuracy.
Running with a bespoke leaflet campaign drilling down to micro-areas within the Downpatrick area, Councillor Enright has produced eye catching leaflets that challenge the big two parties on their performances, and is their vocal critic especially on meeting attendances.
Digney Stands For Aontú.
Macartan Digney, a popular Marion Park candidate in Downpatrick, is standing for Aontú, along with another two candidates across the other DEA’s.
Aontú is an all-Ireland party and was announced on 28 January 2019 in Belfast. Its founder Peadar Toíbín resigned from Sinn Féin in the Dail over his concerns in an anti-abortion vote in the Dail rejecting the party whip.
Aontú is a pro-life party, and aims to join the North and South of Ireland as per the United Irishmen in their 1798 edicts. Tóibín views Belfast as the birthplace of the United Irishmen.
Aontú aims to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit, to seek economic justice for all, and to protect the right of life. And it believes it is a natural home for nationalist-focused politicians and people who are members of the SDLP, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail. The party has one TD at present and around ten declared councillors North and South to date and hopes to build on this base going forward.
Macartan Digney, a worker in the Downe Hospital in Downpatrick, has had a long association in his young political career supporting SDLP candidates in the Downpatrick area during elections and in constituency work but now believes it is his time to shine.
He is an active member of the Downpatrick Community Collective and has strong roots in the Downpatrick community supporting projects such as the Downpatrick Artisan Market held in the Down County Museum. Last year he completed an Advanced Diploma in Social Enterprise at Ulster University.
Alliance Candidate Laird Is Youngest Selected Across NMD.
Tiernan Laird will be the youngest candidate to stand in the election in the NMD Council area and he is running for the Alliance Party.
This A-Level student already has a political pedigree and demonstrated that young people do have political views that count and that they can articulate these views clearly and strongly.
Tiernan has twice chaired the Downpatrick Youth Council and has experience in running meetings and holding intelligent debates. He has also shadowed Councillor Patrick Brown from the Rowallene DEA on a period of work experience and is familiar with the work of the Council.
He follows the party line and is anti-Brexit, and believes in the principle of open and transparent government. On the right-to-life issue, Alliance allows its members a free vote.
If Tiernan were elected, it would send a message to the political establishment that change is possible in the shaping and delivery of Council policy, and that the post-Troubles era is starting to re-define itself.
Savage Steps In For DUP.
James Savage is running for the DUP. He is an accomplished young Unionist with political ambitions. Training currently as a mental health nurse, he will be well positioned to serve in council… to assist in the delivery of key items on mental health, suicide, care etc.
During his work experiences at Blackwater Integrated College in Downpatrick, James spent time with Cllr Billy Walker during his term as chairman of Down District Council, with Arlene Foster during her period as Finance Minister, and Simon Hamilton as Health Minister.
He has served two terms on the Youth Parliament and been involved in local activities in Killyleagh eg being a founder member of the Killyleagh Drop In Centre for youth and the Killyleagh Community Association.
James should hoover up some of the Unionist votes in the Downpatrick area but with the UUP polling strongly in the 2014 election, it will be difficult to consolidate the Unionist vote overall.
James is keen to support local people getting a fair representation for all residents for bread and butter issues and he has the backing of Jim Shannon MP’s advice office in support.
UUP Candidate To Be Announced.
The UUP candidate for Downpatrick has been announced.
Alexander Burgess, son of Rowallane Councillor Robert Burgess, has thrown his hat into the ring and will be standing in the Downpatrick District Electoral area.
Given that there does appear to be a quota for a Ulster Unionist Party Councillor in Downpatrick as evidenced by Jack McIlheron winning a seat in the legacy Down District Council in 2001 with 782 FPV’s , there is a possibility that the UUP candidate could pull off a surprise at the poll but a lot would depend on polling strongly in the FPV’s and getting satisfactory transfers – and this will be tricky but not impossible with the DUP hard on the UUP’s heels. Historically some SDLP voters have transferred votes to the UUP and if the SDLP polls strongly the UUP could benefit marginally.
Whatever happens in the election, it would be absolutely fantastic to see the great respect shown by two candidates from opposite camps in the community who I saw meeting for the first time today wishing each other well in the election being reflected by all the candidates mutually across the Council area. It was a precious moment.
This groundswell may eventually be representative of a re-alignment in the party political system which could ultimately repair the broken system at Stormont as power is distributed more evenly across parties. This will have to work in a co-operative model instead of a two party system where the head is biting the tail. But we live in Northern Ireland, and expecting too much from the political system is tantamount to idealism!
I wish all the candidates and parties all the very best in their endeavours in the Council elections across the different NMD DEA’s.