Upper Bann constituency profile: Clash of liberal and traditional unionist values

Orange Order members parade from Drumcree Church of Ireland in Portadown. Mark Pearce: Presseye.com
Orange Order members parade from Drumcree Church of Ireland in Portadown. Mark Pearce: Presseye.com

From the southern shores of Lough Neagh to the rolling hills of Loughbrickland in mid-Down, the idyllic beauty of Upper Bann surrounds some of the most bitterly contested space in Northern Ireland.

The names Portadown and Drumcree have been synonymous with protest and disorder over the years and, despite enjoying a sustained period out of the media spotlight, sectarian tensions remain not far below the surface.

David Simpson of the DUP

David Simpson of the DUP

Nearby Lurgan also experienced more than its fair share of violence throughout the Troubles and, like Portadown, the two main communities remain relatively polarised.

In more recent times, the Craigavon/Lurgan area has emerged as a hotbed of dissident republican activity and the first PSNI officer to be murdered by terrorists, Stephen Carroll, was shot dead by dissidents at Lismore Manor in 2009.

The other, less polarised, centre of population in Upper Bann, Banbridge, had its town centre destroyed by a republican bomb attack in August 1988 – two weeks before an almost identical Real IRA blast claimed the lives of 29 people in Omagh. This hotly contested parliamentary seat was traditionally Ulster Unionist (UUP) before the DUP’s David Simpson topped the poll in 2005.

Having won the Noble Peace Prize – jointly with the SDLP’s John Hume – as a main architect of the Northern Ireland peace process, David Trimble (now Lord Lisnagarvey) of the UUP lost the notoriously bitter 2005 election contest to the former mayor of Craigavon borough.

I absolutely believe women must be trusted and given control of their own bodies

Doug Beattie

Mr Simpson has a strong public service track record and all the Orange Order credentials seen by many unionists as essential for election, but his main UUP rival for the seat this time around, highly decorated military veteran Doug Beattie MC, has qualities admired by most unionists – and some nationalists.

Although Mr Beattie will be seen as too liberal and progressive for more traditional unionists to countenance, his support for same-sex marriage could attract cross-community votes from nationalists who believe a unionist election victory is inevitable.

If not this time around then in future polls, a single nationalist candidate benefiting from an fairly equal split in the unionist vote could take the seat. On this occasion, both of the unionists and Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd are strong, high-profile candidates, while many have expressed surprise that the SDLP are fielding local councillor Declan McAlinden rather than party stalwart Dolores Kelly.

On the canvas trail, Mr Simpson says he has found people are more concerned with bread and butter issues than the possible introduction of same-sex marriage or relaxing the strict abortion laws (which are devolved matters).

Doug Beattie MC pictured on Remembrance Sunday in Portadown. Photo: Tony Hendron.

Doug Beattie MC pictured on Remembrance Sunday in Portadown. Photo: Tony Hendron.

“The issues that people are raising with me are education, the health issue and getting Stormont back up and running,” he said.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a lobby out there for those things but I’m just not getting it.”

The 58-year-old Gospel singer said his role on the Defra select committee at Westminster had prompted most of the questions.

“People are saying to me ‘where are we with air pollution, where are we with the single farm payment in agriculture and what is going to replace that [post-Brexit]?”

Mr Simpson said he has been given assurances that “Northern Ireland will not be the poor cousin when it comes to Brexit.”

“There are some concerns but I also believe that there are a host of opportunities in relation to finding new markets.”

Commenting on the need to move beyond the traditional sectarian divisions, Mr Simpson said he has a track record of representing all of his constituents.

“When I was a councillor I was the mayor of Craigavon. When former SDLP councillor Ignatius Fox was mayor I was deputy, and then the following year I was mayor and he was deputy. Both sides of the community made it very clear to me and him that it was the best partnership there had been in Craigavon for 25 years,” he said.

Ahead of the June 8 poll, Doug Beattie has made it clear he is prepared to risk alienating some unionists by speaking on out important social issues.

“I believe that we should allow same-sex marriage,” he said.

“I am not talking about forcing [same-sex] marriage on churches, I am talking about people getting married because they love each other. However, there are people out there who do not support same-sex marriage because of deeply held religious views and I will fight for their right to hold that point of view. I think it’s maybe time for a referendum in Northern Ireland on equal marriage.”

The former Royal Irish Regiment captain also supports a change in the abortion laws.

“I absolutely believe women must be trusted and given control of their own bodies. I am pro-life but I believe women need to have choice.”

Mr Beattie said he did not support the introduction of the GB 1967 Abortion Act, but said the law needs revised.

“Northern Ireland is not stopping abortion, we are exporting abortion. People who want to have an abortion will go to Britain but that is only for those who can afford it. What we are doing here is discriminating against the poor. I would support abortion for sex crimes such as rape, and also for fatal foetal abnormality.”

If elected, Mr Beattie said he would bring “higher profile representation” while building a more united constituency.

“What we really need is unionism that is confident, respectful and inclusive. We all have shared problems and I’d like to think I can unite people and focus on those shared problems at Westminster. The three main problems here at the minute are Brexit, the Union and the fact we don’t have an executive.”

Former print production manager Leslie White said it was more important than ever that Northern Ireland politicians “moved beyond the orange and green” mindset.

The 66-year-old from Craigavon, said whoever represents the constituency “must take on board what people are asking for” in relation to issues such as health provision and education.

“Too many people still think along orange and green lines and our politicians don’t seem to be committed to changing that, and I say that as someone from an orange background.”

Mr White added: “Lurgan is still split down the middle and so is Portadown, and the same could be said for other places where people don’t integrate enough. There has to be give and take on both sides and this country will never change until there is.”

Emma Wilson is a 20-year-old student from Craigavon.

She said the younger generation “doesn’t want old men setting the agenda for them,” but is confident things are slowly changing.

“Me and my friends want choice over our bodies for one thing, and we’re not hung up on the old religious battles from years ago. I have friends who are gay and it’s absurd that they can’t get married in the way we can.

“I’m not too worried about Brexit because it’s up to us as a country, in the UK, to make the best of whatever happens.”

Ms Wilson added: “I didn’t want Brexit myself but I hope the really anti-Brexit people don’t make things as bad as possible just so they can say ‘I told you so.’ That would be totally irresponsible.

“I come from a unionist background but I, and I think most of my friends too, would vote for the best candidate just on the issues that matter, like education, health and employment etc.”