THE SDLP and Sinn Fein are bracing themselves for what could be the tightest Parliamentary election campaign in South Down in over 30 years.
Not since Eddie McGrady and Enoch Powell battled it out in three epic contests in the early 1980s has the result of an election in South Down been so close to call.
Voters in South Down will go to the polls on June 8 after Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap election hoping to strengthen her majority at a time when the Labour Party is well behind in the polls.
Sitting South Down MP, Margaret Ritchie, is seeking a third term, but the surge in support for Sinn Fein at the Assembly poll in March has left the veteran SDLP politician facing her toughest ever fight to retain the seat the party has held since 1987.
Ritchie’s position has been further threatened by the possibility that a joint Unionist candidate could stand in the constituency. Ritchie has benefited from several thousand Unionist votes in her previous two parliamentary battles, votes which were more about keeping Sinn Fein out than getting Ritchie in.
Talks have been underway within unionism in South Down for several months — well before the Assembly election — and the Recorder understands are sufficiently advanced that a possible candidate, who is not a politician, has already been approached.
A Unionist source told the Recorder that the snap election decision, which must be formally approved by two thirds of MPs in a House of Commons vote today, has come a bit early for the joint candidate project.
He said Unionists had been hoping that boundary changes, which would bring into South Down unionists from the Loughbrickland area and remove a predominantly nationalist area around Crossgar, would have been in place before the election.
“Nevertheless there are serious discussions going on and the snap election announcement means decisions will have to be taken sooner rather than later,” said the source.
The worry for the SDLP and Ritchie is a joint Unionist candidate could strip thousands of votes from her and leave the way clear for the Republican candidate to take the seat for the first time.
Republicans were remaining tight lipped yesterday as to who that candidate will be, with the high profile former Stormont Minister, Chris Hazzard, saying discussions would be taking place over the next few days.
Hazzard would be a popular choice among the grass roots but he is highly regarded within the party’s Assembly team and, while winning South Down is seen as a major prize or Republicans, losing Hazzard ‘to Westminster’ may be a step too far.
The party may instead opt for Sinead Ennis, the former councillor who topped the poll in the Assembly election in South Down and is seen as popular among younger voters.
Ritchie was in bullish mood after the election announcement was made yesterday morning, saying she was “ready for the fight.”
“Undoubtedly I will be putting forward my name to contest the election in South Down and if selected by my colleagues will be seeing re-election for a third term,” she said.
She said she didn’t deny the surge in support for Sinn Fein in the Assembly poll but cautioned that a Parliamentary election is a different animal entirely.
“We in the SDLP take our seats and fight for our constituents against Brexit in Westminster and it is important that South Down is represented by someone who is in a position to make those arguments in the right place,” she added.
And on those Unionists who have voted for her in previous elections, she said her record shows she has worked for all the people of South Down, irrespective of political affiliation, which she believes is recorded in her vote.
Hazzard said the election is not so much about Brexit as it is about strengthening Theresa May’s hand in Westminster.
“However the people in the north and in South Down have spoken very clearly on Brexit which is going to be disastrous and that strength of feeling was demonstrated at the ball box in March,” he said. “But it is also about the financial pressure on schools and health budgets, on cuts and austerity.
Mr Hazzard said the poll will become almost a rerun of the Brexit referendum.
“Sinn Fein has been leading this issue and our stance on Brexit clearly influenced the way people voted in the recent assembly election, although we clearly recognise that every election is different,” he said.
And on the threat to Sinn Fein’s hopes posed by thousands of Unionists voting to keep Republicans from winning, Mr Hazzard said Brexit has created a new playing field.
“The SDLP are on one side of the Brexit debate and Unionists are on the other and I am not so sure unionist voters will vote on mass for the SDLP because of their stance on Brexit,” he said.