Over recent months a battle which could play an important role in shaping the future of unionism has been under way on the largely sleepy roads, streets and lanes of South Antrim.
From the market town of Ballyclare to the now sprawling village of Mallusk and the strongly loyalist Ballycraigy estate near Antrim, supporters of William McCrea and Danny Kinahan have been attempting to persuade voters.
South Antrim is the DUP’s most marginal seat, held in 2010 by the Rev McCrea with a majority of 1,183 over the then UUP leader Reg Empey, who had been parachuted in at short notice after a dispute in the local party.
There are other candidates in the field – the TUV’s Richard Cairns, Alliance’s Neil Kelly, Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney, the SDLP’s Roisin Lynch and Alan Dunlop of the Conservatives.
But while those parties’ votes will be important as an indicator of their likely chances in next year’s Assembly election, the two main unionist candidates are battling it out in a straight fight for the seat.
There are clear tensions between DUP and UUP members in South Antrim – often a sign of a close contest. On Monday night, DUP MLA Trevor Clarke tweeted that it was “a two-horse race an Orange man or a wishy washy liberal”. When someone replied to say that Mr Kinahan was a “decorated military veteran”, Mr Clarke replied: “He might be decorated but [he] doesn’t like flags in Templepatrick”.
Speaking to the News Letter last night, the Rev McCrea was much more diplomatic about his opponent, saying that he would “treat Danny with great respect personally and with graciousness”.
When asked if he endorsed Mr Clarke’s sentiments about his opponent, the Rev McCrea said: “No, let me say this. You know that individuals have their own way of expressing things ... you could be quoting from a number of those Danny has around him to try to demean me and try to castigate me in many ways. Let me tell you this: I genuinely believe that if I have anything to offer to the people, it is what I am telling you. I offer them experience; I offer them a record of delivery, and I offer them respect at Westminster to get things done.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr Kinahan has a very different story: “What I get on the doors is that people want a change. They want someone who’s from here, who’s here all the time and working with them.”
The DUP has in the past attempted to use Mr Kinahan’s grand home – he lives in the historic Castle Upton in the heart of Templepatrick – to claim that he is out of touch with constituents.
But when asked if he found it difficult to relate to those in poorer parts of the constituency who may be on benefits, Mr Kinahan said that his time at Sandhurst, where he trained to be an officer before serving in the Blues and Royals, had taught him to look after all of the men under his command, and that to do so he had to understand their lives.
“It’s not where you come from. It’s how you use your brain; how you look after people,” he said.
When asked if his election would signal a return to ‘big house unionism’, Mr Kinahan said: “No. I happen to live in a big house because dad bought it, but it’s not big house unionism. I always think that was an unfortunate term ... I’m there for absolutely everybody.”
He added: “That’s why I went into politics. It’s about fighting for the person who’s got nothing.”
He denied that the unionist pact will make it more difficult for him to attract tactical votes from Alliance or SDLP supporters, saying that those who have watched him over recent years know just how different he is to the Rev McCrea, and that he wants “a Union for Catholic, Protestant, everybody ... that’s what I’m there for”.
If he is successful in Thursday’s election, Mr Kinahan pledges to give up his Assembly seat straight away, pointing out that he has led debates at Stormont about ending double-jobbing.
Over recent years DUP leader Peter Robinson has said that he wants to make the party more appealing to Roman Catholic voters.
When asked if he saw himself as someone ideally placed to win Catholic votes, the Rev McCrea said: “You see if you were to look at my constituency caseload, I can tell you that right across the whole community those who are Protestant, Roman Catholic or of no religious persuasion whatsoever have come through my door and I can assure you of one thing – I defy anybody to say that one person was treated differently than the other.”
The Rev McCrea’s son, Mid Ulster MLA Ian McCrea, is recorded in last year’s book The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power as saying of the bid to win Catholic votes: “I can’t see it if I’m honest. I would be more concerned that in some areas we have disengaged with those who got us to where we are”.
Asked if that was a fair concern, the Rev McCrea said: “No. Let me say this to you. Each area has got their own needs – Mid Ulster has got its own needs, Fermanagh and South Tyrone has its own needs and they are battling different things than we are in South Antrim.”
Last year it was reported that the Rev McCrea works 30 hours a week as a Free Presbyterian minister, for which he receives a salary of £25,000 on top of his £67,000 MP’s salary.
The Rev McCrea objected, however, to the UUP raising the issue during the campaign saying that people have always known that he is a church minister.
He said that pressing issues raised with him are the need for a Ballyclare bypass and the proposed incinerator at Hightown, which he is “totally opposed to”.
MPs respect me, says McCrea
William McCrea says that the issue of education was a huge isssue and that he had lobbied – in several cases successfully – for new school facilities in places such as Templepatrick and at Parkhall Integrated School in Antrim. He argues that his experience marked him out from Mr Kinahan.
The Rev McCrea also argues that he has “respect” at Westminster, as the only Northern Ireland MP to ever be appointed to the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs, who can deputise for the Speakers.