Upper Bann battle: Simpson changes tack to play experience card

In the final days of the campaign, the DUP’s David Simpson has switched tack in his campaign for the keenly-contested Upper Bann seat, arguing that with the prospect of a hung Parliament it is no time for a novice.

Until now, Mr Simpson’s campaign has appeared to have been focused on relentlessly driving home the DUP’s message that the seat could fall to Sinn Fein’s Catherine Seeley if insufficient numbers of unionists vote for the man who has been Upper Bann MP for a decade since toppling the then Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.

Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye''Saturday 27th March 2015 - DUP Spring Conference''Pictured is Nigel Dodds, David Simpson and Peter Robinson with the Northern Ireland Plan during the DUP spring conference at the Hilton Conference centre in Templepatrick ''Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye

Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye''Saturday 27th March 2015 - DUP Spring Conference''Pictured is Nigel Dodds, David Simpson and Peter Robinson with the Northern Ireland Plan during the DUP spring conference at the Hilton Conference centre in Templepatrick ''Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye

In the absence of the sort of reliable polling which is commonplace in the rest of the UK and the Republic, it is difficult to know just how close the race is.

Speaking to the News Letter, UUP candidate Jo-Anne Dobson is deliberately vague about many policy areas — a potential weakness which the DUP could perhaps have exploited, had it not seemed to base its campaign on the alleged possibility of Sinn Fein getting the seat.

When asked if she would support a referendum on EU membership, Mrs Dobson says “we will scrutinise” the proposal, but expresses no clear view either way. She says the issue has not been raised during canvassing.

Like the DUP, she is expressing absolutely no ideological preference between Labour and the Conservatives in the event of a hung Parliament — even though the UUP fought the last General Election on a joint manifesto with the Tories.

Asked about a choice between Cameron and Miliband in a hung Parliament and about their significantly different proposals to reduce the vast national deficit, Mrs Dobson will only say that she would “do what is right for my constituents”.

When questioned on what she would offer that is different to Mr Simpson, she said: “A strong track record of delivery. I suppose what is different is that I am born, brought up, reared, educated and live in the constituency...people see me as one of their own; when I’m on the streets of Banbridge or wherever they know me; they know my track record of working.”

When asked to name policy areas where she disagrees with Mr Simpson, Mrs Dobson said that there are “so many”, but only specified “votes for young people at 16”.

She said that more parochial issues such as pre-school places or access to cancer drugs were issues which are constantly raised on doorsteps and which she believes will decide the contest.

For months, the UUP has openly said that Upper Bann is its number one target seat.

But Mrs Dobson says that she does not feel under pressure: “No. but I am putting my trust in the electorate...”

The DUP is clearly concerned that Mrs Dobson has the potential to poll strongly — if it did not believe that, there wouldn’t even be a remote threat from Sinn Fein in what until now has been seen as a safe unionist seat.

Speaking to the News Letter yesterday after canvassing in Waringstown, Mr Simpson fleshed out his campaign message somewhat, pitching the battle as one about experience.

“I think it is time for experience,” he says.

“When you look at my track record over the past 10 years, I’m very content with it; I think the people are very content with it, but we’ll know when it comes to Thursday whatever way it will go. I’m quietly confident.”

Asked about the impression that his campaign has been solely about claiming Sinn Fein could take the seat rather than about critiquing his main opponents, he says: “I have to say, and I’m being quite frank with you, I think the people need to know the facts.

“Quite honestly, I don’t know Jo-Anne Dobson’s opinion on anything because I’ve never heard her interviewed on the economy, I’ve never heard her interviewed on education, so I don’t know where she stands on anything.

“Therefore, I’m saying to the people: experience counts over that; they’ll have their choice come Thursday.”

Mrs Dobson is utterly dismissive of claims Sinn Fein could win the seat and says that if the party really believed it could win the seat it would have put forward its big hitter in the area, John O’Dowd.

“There’s no threat whatsoever. Upper Bann is a unionist seat and will be a unionist seat. It’s a straight fight between myself and David Simpson and to say otherwise is disingenuous to the electorate,” she says.

“It’s for the people of Upper Bann to decide who will take the seat. But if you look at the history of Upper Bann since its formation, it has always been a unionist seat.”

Mrs Dobson says that the name of the former MP, David Trimble, “hasn’t been mentioned at all to me”.

When asked what he has achieved for the constituency in his 10 years as MP, Mr Simpson jokes “have you got all night?”, before beginning a vast list including working with Invest NI to attract companies to the area, pressing for holding a referendum on membership of the EU, raising the issue of the National Crime Agency, “lobbying heavily” for the new investment in Banbridge health centre and a new Asda store in Edenderry.

Mr Simpson says that DUP leader Peter Robinson has been in the constituency campaigning with him and has received “a very, very good reception”.

Asked about his prospects, Mr Simpson sounds contrite, rather than bullish, saying that he is “quietly confident” and that “the people don’t like arrogance...it is the people who will decide”.

• The DUP once opposed homosexuality, but in the wake of Jim Wells’ comments, Peter Robinson has made clear that the party now takes no position on the issue. When asked if he is comfortable with the current policy, Mr Simpson says: “Yes. I don’t think that it’s a role for any politician to get into someone’s lifestyle.

“I have my own personal view on things from a Christian perspective but I think from a party perspective and as a politician I don’t think we get into...I think it’s very sad that whenever we look across the whole of the UK, that campaign has been fought on the economy and investment, education, job creation, all of that. Unfortunately, we are bogged down in fighting and arguing in relation to same-sex marriage and abortion.”

Mr Simpson was elected on a wave of unionist anger at the UUP leader David Trimble in 2005. Some DUP supporters struggled to comprehend the party’s sudden move into government with Sinn Fein just two years later.

Mr Simpson says that he has not received that message on the doors – though the way he phrases his answer suggests that he realises that feeling exists even if not said to his face. He defends the Stormont arrangements, saying that the party had demanded the IRA relinquish its weapons and support the police – two demands which were met.

Jim Allister has hinted that his voters may prefer Mrs Dobson because the UUP was “more straightforward with the electorate” about going into government with Sinn Fein. When asked if he is confident of attracting TUV voters back, Mr Simpson says that in the European election many TUV voters transferred to the DUP, so may return to him but “I’m not taking that for granted”.