General election: SDLP man tells unionists – vote for me to unseat Sinn Fein

The SDLP’s South Down candidate has said that he is “potentially the dark horse” of the election who could unseat Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard, despite little expectation of that happening.

Michael Savage pictured in 2011 during his time as SDLP chief executive
Michael Savage pictured in 2011 during his time as SDLP chief executive

Michael Savage, who has only been a councillor for two years, has a low profile for someone challenging for a Westminster seat, leaving some observers to believe that the SDLP had effectively given up on regaining South Down.

However, Mr Savage – who was the SDLP’s chief executive before entering council and who prior to that helped found the Down Democrat and Newry Democrat newspapers – insisted that he was well known within South Down.

He told the News Letter: “If what I’m picking up on the doorsteps is anything to go by ... people have had enough of an abstentionist MP. They realise what they did have previously in Eddie McGrady and Margaret Ritchie – MPs who represented everybody and worked for everybody – and I believe they’ve got the message that I would represent them in exactly the same way.

“I was raised in the Spa, a predominantly unionist village – that natural outreach has always been with me.”

Appealing for unionist tactical votes, he said: “The numbers don’t lie – the only person who can replace an absent MP in South Down is Michael Savage from the SDLP.”

One issue which cost Margaret Ritchie unionist votes in the area was the SDLP’s role in the naming of a council play park in Newry after IRA man Raymond McCreesh.

When asked if he would apologise for the party’s role in naming the children’s facility after a terrorist, Mr Savage declined to do so.

However, he said that he had worked with unionists and said that unionist councillors in the area accepted his bona fides on the issue.

He said: “I have never strayed away from party policy on this, that any public place should not be named after anybody who’s been involved in the em ... in, what’s the term I would use, in any armed struggle or any armed combatant, or what’s the term used ... throughout all this I’ve been consistent; I’ve never once deviated from our party policy which is that no public place should be named after anybody involved in a violent past.

“Those unionist members of our council would bear testimony to that.”

Mr Savage went on to say that he “took a proud pragmatic approach to this” and wanted to see the issue resolved that would respect unionist concerns and see the facility go to a much better community use because it had been the site of anti-social behaviour.

He said that on issues such as post-Brexit legislation for fishing, he would represent the constituency’s needs in Parliament.

Although the SDLP now has no party policy on abortion, the candidate also said that he was firmly pro-life and opposed to the proposed abortion legislation, saying that he had a personal reason for that because his son had been born prematurely at 25-and-a-half weeks in 1998 and had recently graduated from university.

“I saw how precious life is ... from that perspective, I am pro-life in my views. That said, I believe we need to show compassion for all women who find themselves in harrowing circumstances.”