Election 2022: DUP citadel of North Antrim under assault

In this constituency profile, News Letter Political Editor HENRY McDONALD examines the unionist battle in the Paisleyite heartland of North Antrim

Birthplace of Paisleyism and citadel of the DUP for decades, North Antrim, the party believes, will return its two candidates, Mervyn Storey and Paul Frew, to Stormont after May 5.

The main question though hanging over the constituency is whether Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister could top the poll here and even bring in his running mate Matthew Armstrong at the expense of a rival unionist.

As it appears in every other constituency, the DUP in North Antrim are talking up the possibility of Sinn Fein topping the overall poll across Northern Ireland and Michelle O’Neill ending up as First Minister.

Dunluce Castle, along the North Antrim coast.

Mervyn Storey, who has been an MLA for the area since 2003, insists the message from the doorsteps is that the top priority is preventing that scenario and in turn thwarting Sinn Fein plans for campaign for a Border Poll.

“The people of North Antrim know Sinn Fein want to take Northern Ireland in the wrong direction, by focussing on the decisive politics of a Border Poll. Only a DUP victory will keep North Antrim and Northern Ireland moving in the right direction,” he says.

The Ulster Unionists too are running two candidates including the outgoing Health Minister Robin Swann who is now one of the most famous political faces in the Province after two years directing the battle against the Covid pandemic. Mr Swann faces one of his most trenchant critics during the lockdown in Paul Frew who criticised the extent of the restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

His UUP running mate Bethany Ferris was also on the frontline of the Covid crisis working in the health and care sector supporting individuals with learning disabilities, autism and mental health.

Ms Ferris said among her priorities will be “promoting good relations across North Antrim” and describes herself as a “new voice for change in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

With Jim Allister regarded as guaranteed to take a seat, the TUV are hoping that North Antrim could provide an upset in the shape of Councillor Armstrong.

The Ballymena based councillor said he is “on the frontline” of the Protocol-effect on Northern Ireland working as he does as a transport manager in Antrim.

“I have first hand experience each and every working day of what the Protocol is doing to our economy in terms of our drivers having to fill lengthy complicated forms and put up with checks before they get off the boat from GB. All that adds additional costs onto firms like the one I work for and in so many cases this leads to more costlier goods especially food stuffs.

“On top of the constitutional issue where we are cut off from the rest of the UK, I see all the time the financial and logistical problems this Protocol is causing,” he says.

Sinn Fein’s Phillip McGuigan is seeking re-election and failure to return to Stormont after May 5 would be a huge surprise given the size of the nationalist quota in North Antrim.

SDLP Ballymena councillor Eugene Reid is standing for the smaller nationalist party and his transfers might prove crucial for a potential Alliance surge in the constituency.

The Alliance Party has pinned their hopes on the only other female candidate standing in North Antrim, Patricia O’Lynn.

Most observers of this still Paisleyite heartland believe that it might be a case of as-you-where in North Antrim once the votes are counted and the surpluses and transfers are distributed.

But that outcome relies partly on what one UUP strategist calls “Project Fear” and its potency to change the minds of wavering unionist voters, unhappy with the DUP’s record but fearful that a bruising for the party at the polls this time could only benefit Sinn Fein.

Full list of candidates

Jim Allister (TUV)

Matthew Armstrong (TUV)

Bethany Ferris (UUP)

Paul Frew (DUP)

Philip McGuigan (SF)

Patricia O’Lynn (All)

Eugene Reid (SDLP)

Laird Shingleton (Ind)

Mervyn Storey (DUP)

Robin Swann (UUP)

Paul Veronica (Green)

Outgoing MLAs

Jim Allister (TUV)

Paul Frew (DUP)

Philip McGuigan (SF)

Mervyn Storey (DUP)

Robin Swann (UUP)

March 2017 Stormont Election results

Philip McGuigan SF 7,600 15.80% ELECTED

Robin Swann UUP 6,022 12.52% ELECTED

Jim Allister TUV 6,214 12.92% ELECTED

Paul Frew DUP 6,975 14.50% ELECTED

Mervyn Storey DUP 6,857 14.26% ELECTED

Phillip Logan DUP 5,708 11.87%

Connor Duncan SDLP 3,519 7.32%

Patricia O’Lynn All 2,616 5.44%

Timothy Gaston TUV 1,505 3.13%

Mark Bailey Green 530 1.10%

Monica Digney Ind 435 0.90%

Adam McBride Ind 113 0.23%

December 2019 General Election results

Ian Paisley Jr DUP 20,860 47.4% ELECTED

Robin Swann UUP 8,139 18.5%

Patricia O’Lynn All 6,231 14.1%

Cara McShane SF 5,632 12.8%

Margaret McKillop SDLP 2,943 6.7%

Stephen Palmer Ind 246 0.6%