McGrath sole survivor for SDLP in South Down

McGrath sole survivor for SDLP in South Down

11 May 2022

IT was a bad election for the SDLP in South Down.

Once the political kingpins of the constituency when it held the Westminster seat and two Assembly seats, the party has been reduced to a single Stormont position as Sinn Fein continues to strengthen its political grip on the constituency.

At the 2019 Westminster election, the SDLP nominated Newry councillor Michael Savage to chase down Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard who had previously wrestled the seat from Margaret Ritchie, now ensconced in the House of Lords.

Savage finished just 1,620 votes behind Hazzard three years ago, with the votes difference behind Sinn Fein and the SDLP following last week’s Assembly election a mammoth 15,706.

The failure of Crotlieve councillor Karen McKevitt to retain the seat previously held by Paula Bradley was a blow for the party locally. It had decided to select her as the second candidate behind Downpatrick’s Colin McGrath instead of Mr Savage.

It’s understood Mr McGrath was given a slightly larger area to canvass than in 2017 as the party wanted to ensure his re-election to the Assembly where he was the party’s spokesman on health. Mr McGrath is also the party chairman.

In addition to the failure of Mrs McKevitt to secure a seat, there was more bad news for the SDLP regionally with former Department of Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon losing her South Belfast seat and Dolores Kelly failing to retain her Upper Bann seat. 

The loss of three crucial seats means the SDLP will hold no ministerial posts in the new Executive. In South Down, the SDLP’s share of the vote has dipped by almost three per cent and the party will be casting an anxious eye towards next year’s council elections. It currently has 10 councillors and will be keen to ensure that they successfully defend their seats.

As the sole SDLP Assembly member for South Down, Mr McGrath said people across the North have given a mandate for the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver on and that the “eyes of the world will now be watching to see it done”.

Expressing his thanks to those who gave him 6,082 first preference votes — a rise of almost 1,000 since 2017 — Mr McGrath said he is delighted to return to Stormont to serve the people for another five years.

“The social democratic and labour values which I espouse remain relevant today and this is evidenced in that my own vote increased once more,” he continued.

“I remain committed to delivering on the issues which I brought to the doorsteps of South Down. I am committed to the transformation of our health service and the Downe Hospital, the protection and enhancement of our education and youth services and seeing key infrastructure projects delivered in South Down.”

Mr McGrath said as the sole SDLP MLA for the constituency, he wanted the public to rest assured that he is there for them.

“The constituency service I provide will continue and I will be working closely with local councillors to determine how best we can serve their needs,” he continued.

“The results of the Assembly election are such that Sinn Fein, the DUP and now the Alliance party have received a significant mandate upon which to form a government and I congratulate them on their electoral success.”

Mr McGrath said he wished his fellow Assembly members Sinead Ennis, Cathy Mason, Diane Forsythe and Patrick Brown well on their success. 

“I look forward to working with them to see continued delivery for the people of the constituency. However, with the mandate which those parties have received comes an onus of responsibility.  The people of the North voted for a government which works for them and for a functioning Executive that is delivering for them.”

Mr McGrath said Sinn Fein has promised real change while the DUP promised to deliver on its five-point plan, with Alliance promising to deliver on a mandate of ‘Together We Can’.

He added: “Given that the SDLP will now enter opposition and will not sit in the Executive, I want the people to be assured that we will also be holding these parties accountable to their electoral promises. These mandates must now be delivered upon.”

Speaking to BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme Mr McGrath said the SDLP will now begin a process of approaching former SDLP voters and finding out why they moved away from the party

He admitted it was a “difficult” election for the SDLP and said the nationalist community was instead focused on the target of a nationalist first minister and the best chance of securing the position.

Mr McGrath added: “The core message we have still resonates - issues like the cost of living and education are coming to the forefront and we need to be able to deal with those issues.”