The first stirrings in Upper Bann have started for next year’s May 7 Westminster Elections, with the Ulster Unionists holding their election meeting on Saturday, October 11.
Three names are being bandied around – those of Jo-Anne Dobson MLA, Craigavon Mayor Colin McCusker and Councillor Doug Beattie.
Dobson, with experience at both council and Assembly levels, is the odds-on favourite, although she just about made the Assembly in 2011, squeezing past McCusker on the last count to join veteran Samuel Gardiner in Stormont.
Beattie, an Army Captain with a military medal to his credit, is viewed as one for the future. His first election was in May this year when he made the new ABC Council, giving Portadown a second UUP seat for the first time since Arnold Hatch and Sydney Anderson in 2001, although Anderson later ‘defected’ to DUP.
It is widely accepted that, with leader Mike Nesbitt having stabilised the party, the fortunes of UUP are on the rise. But whoever gets the nomination will have their work cut out to unseat the man in charge, DUP’s David Simpson, who is reported to be hitting the campaign trail already.
The only danger is the shredding of the unionist vote, which would work in favour of Sinn Fein, who see Upper Bann as one of the more vulnerable of the 18 Northern Ireland seats. But on the nationalist-republican side, SDLP usually draw more than 5,000 votes so they, too, will be split.
Last time the counting for the main parties was – Simpson (DUP) 14,000; Harry Hamilton (UUP) 10,639; John O’Dowd (SF) 10,237; Dolores Kelly (SDLP) 5,276.
Education Minister O’Dowd remains the strongest SF candidate, but with candidates not allowed to sit in both houses (and SF refuse to take their Westminster seats, anyway) he may choose to concentrate on Stormont, in which case Johnny McGibbon may be the chosen one. And SDLP’s deputy leader Dolores Kelly may choose the same path.
Unionist parties like UKIP and PUP may also test their strength which would suit the ‘green’ parties, but only UUP and DUP have shown their hands so far.
The UUP annual meeting is on October 17-18 and a number of the party’s candidates throughout Northern Ireland will be known by then.