THE concept of unionist ‘unity’ candidates has divided political opinion in Upper Bann, following the move by the DUP and Ulster Unionists to choose Portadown undertaker Nigel Lutton to fight Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy in Mid Ulster in the March 7 Westminster election.
With Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness having vacated the Mid Ulster seat, Mr Lutton (42), who isn’t a member of any political party, was unanimously selected by separate meetings of the two main unionist parties.
Upper Bann MP David Simpson said that the time had come for his constituency to follow suit.
“At the last general election (2010), the unionists had around 60 per cent of the vote and SF/SDLP a 40 per cent share,” he said. “The latest ratios are tighter, and it’s getting to the stage that we can’t afford to split the unionist vote, as it would open the door to Sinn Fein. That would be wrong and futile as they don’t even occupy their seats when they’re elected to Westminster.”
However, Mr Simpson’s call for unity has not found favour with the constituency’s Ulster Unionists. Arnold Hatch, who was unsuccessful in a bid to win a seat at Stormont, claimed Upper Bann remains a safe unionist seat.
“A look at the 2010 poll shows that David Simpson (14,000 votes, 33.8 per cent) took the seat, even though UUP’s Harry Hamilton (10,639, 25.7 per cent) gained the highest number of votes of any of our party candidates. SF’s John O’Dowd was third on 10,237 (24.7 per cent) and Dolores Kelly (SDLP) polled 5,237 (12.8 per cent). The seat’s safe.”
“Those figures show that the time has come for a unity candidate in Upper Bann,” added Mr Simpson. “The SDLP are losing out to Sinn Fein, and the gap is closing even more, based on the population trends.”
Mr Hatch pointed out that the Mid Ulster situation was “a different type of experiment”. He added, “It’s a means of maximising the unionist vote.” Mr McGuinness received 52 per cent of the vote and the SDLP’s Tony Quinn attracted 14.4 per cent - a total of 66.4 per cent. The three unionists - the DUP’s Ian McCrea, Sandra Overend (UUP) and Walter Millar of TUV gained just 32 per cent. “Still, if it increases the unionist turn-out, so much the better,” said Mr Hatch. “But in real terms, the political differences between the UUP and DUP are complex. For example, we differ from the DUP in education. They support the Education Skills Authority which gives the power to one minister - in the current circumstances John O’Dowd - to have control over every child in Northern Ireland. We’re totally opposed to it.”
Keith Baird, chairman of the UUP said that a shared candidate in Upper Bann was “unlikely”, and it remained a safe unionist seat. He added that circumstances were different in Mid Ulster where the people “haven’t been represented in 16 years”, adding, “We appeal to all unionist people there to go out in their thousands and elect Nigel Lutton, who will make an excellent MP.”
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