Ciarán Dunbar in Newry
There is no doubt that the battle for the Newry and Armagh Westminster Seat is more interesting than say South Down as a number of factors leave it (slightly) less predictable.
Sinn Féin’s decision to stand MLA Mickey Brady rather than the sitting MP Conor Murphy was only a slight surprise as unlike the other parties, becoming an MP is not a promotion in Sinn Féin.
The other factor, which was a big surprise, was the SDLP decision to stand former Armagh Gaelic footballer and All-Ireland medal winner, Justin McNulty.
McNulty has no background in politics at all though the party say he is a long standing member of their local branch.
That said, to use a term stolen from southern politics, he certainly is ‘gene-pool’ SDLP; his father is a long-standing member of the party in South Armagh.
The introduction of McNulty has certainly shook things up, but it is highly unlikely that Sinn Féin will lose this seat.
Here are the current odds from Paddy Power …
Sinn Fein 1/14
The odds have shortened as one would expect but they tell a stark story.
Mickey Brady is a Newry man, a Ballybot man to be exact. He has a reasonably high political profile across the North but locally Newry will be his stronghold.
But he has worked for 25 years in welfare rights across Newry and Mourne and that work would have brought him into contact with people in South Armagh – but he would be less known in the areas around Armagh City.
He is a solid candidate but he does not have the profile of Conor Murphy and the SDLP will hope to close the gap (8,331 votes in the last election).
Mullaghbawn man Justin McNulty was brought in politics to the elation of SDLP supporters.
Optimism rocketed and the SDLP seemed to genuinely believe that McNulty was going to sweep to victory, I even heard him mentioned as the next leader of the SDLP.
Those hopes faded quickly as it was realised that Justin was only beginning his political apprenticeship and his performances in the media were not impressive.
He has since been prominent at the launch of the SDLP manifesto but not in terms of television and radio appearances.
But the inspirational speaker has energized the SDLP locally, there is no doubt about that.
His All-Ireland medal, sporting profile and personality have been the main thrusts of his campaign with politics and policy almost completely ignored.
He has no political record at all, neither has he expressed any strong political beliefs, strangely this has made him difficult to attack politically and Sinn Féin seem to prefer to ignore him.
No journalist or analyst I have met is taking Justin McNulty seriously – I personally do.
The constant GAA references and the regular appearance of a football in the campaign is quite bizarre to journalists – but journalists do not decide elections, the voters do.
I take him seriously as is is my understanding that yes, all politics is local but more importantly it is personal and an all-Ireland medal and a long county career count for a lot in rural Ireland.
How many votes is an all-Ireland medal worth? – we are about to find out.
The medal is from 2002, it is a while back but most voters will remember it.
The candidacy is extraordinary and the campaign is unprecedented and very unconventional, in the north at least, being rooted in Gaelic football.
So much so that the GAA appear to intervened though they say they were just reminding politicians of their rules, not targeting any particular candidate.
But a recent picture of Justin McNulty in Croke Park with the Sam Maguire Cup seems to have disappeared from Social media though his profile pic on twitter is still himself in Croke Park.
The one clear political idea that McNulty is pushing is that he will attend Westminster – “I won’t stand by the sidelines.”
He has stressed throughout the campaign that the constituency has been left “unrepresented” through 10 years of Sinn Féin abstentionism – Sinn Féin would of course deny that.
He has refused to answer questions on the Oath of Allegiance to Queen Elizabeth but that is something that SDLP core supporters will have to problem with.
I find Sinn Féin’s “attitude of revolt” is inextricable to the SDLP.
But it is clear that McNulty’s campaign is aimed at getting lapsed SDLP voters out, not converting republicans.
The reactivation of Séamus Mallon would seem to back up that theory.
Having said that he will get votes from discontented former Sinn Féin supporters despite the ideological chasm – as I said, all politics is personal, not just local.
At the end of the day, for Justin McNulty, it comes down to whether their is a + or – sign beside his name after the election.
There are wider issues with the SDLP brand but I doubt of that if that will trouble McNulty – his branding is fundamentally based on his GAA background rather than in politics or with the SDLP.
I personally predict he will close the gap but will that be enough to keep him in politics?
And that will the SDLP find for him to do in the meantime to put food on the table?
The SDLP, characteristically it must be said, underestimate Mickey Brady. He is from a working class background and has worked in welfare advice rather than having a so called professional background.
He also is hate figure for former members of Sinn Féin; He comes from a ‘stickie’ background and must be seen as very much representative of ‘new’ Sinn Féin rather than a foot-soldier of the ‘Long War’.
Interestingly, is an interview with Q Radio, Brady was more resolute on the ‘Oath’ issue than many other Sinn Féin candidates – “We do not owe allegiance to a foreign government nor indeed a foreign Queen.”
Danny Kennedy is a strong candidate for the UUP and the joint candidate, in theory if the unionist turn-out was very high and the SDLP and Sinn Féin were evenly spilt he could slip through – but this is highly unlikely if not near impossible.
Ironically, as a high profile and respected politician he could have picked up Catholic votes in the constituency, but being joint unionist candidate has put paid to that.
I predict Sinn Féin will hold the seat by around 5,000 votes but I do predict a low turn out.
Here is a full list of candidates.
Sinn Féin -Mickey Brady
UUP – Danny Kennedy
SDLP – Justin McNulty
Alliance – Kate Nicholl
NI Conservatives – Robert Rigby