Fight to be top dog as North Down prepares for poll

Special report by Iain Gray

NORTH Down heads to the polls next week, with Alliance taking on the DUP in an attempt to become top dog.
Across the entire borough, Alliance are running 16 candidates and the Democratic Unionists 17, so neither could have an outright majority on the 40-seat council.
But each one has a good chance of being the largest party on a redrafted Ards and North Down Council next week – and if Alliance can pull off their ambitious gambit, it would be the first time a non-Unionist party is in this area’s top spot.
The DUP has lost ground in recent years, with a reduced presence on the council while several politicians quit the party to stand as independents.
Alliance have gained in strength. The party stood 10 candidates in 2019’s council elections, with a full house of all 10 getting in; in hindsight, Alliance high-ups realised they could have easily taken two or three more seats.
Since then, they’ve gained an extra North Down MLA and scooped the area’s top political prize, its Westminster seat.
Seeking to capitalise on their growing popularity, Alliance are going all-in with a vastly expanded roster of candidates next week – but since the end of last year, several factors have combined to make it much more of a risky gamble.
Eleven of their 16 candidates are in the party’s North Down powerbase, but only one of that 11, current mayor Karen Douglas, has actually fought an election before.
Of the 10 winners in 2019, three have since left to become MLAs, while several more, including some very familiar names, have decided to leave politics altogether.
Alliance’s team mostly consists of either complete newcomers or people appointed to the council during the current term – and one of those appointees, Hannah Irwin, is shifting from her current district of Bangor West to Bangor East and Donaghadee.
In fact, Bangor West shows the fallout from Alliance’s councillor exodus most acutely, as the party’s other councillor in the district, Scott Wilson, is bowing out.
The son of two long-running politicians, next week will be the first time in decades that the Wilson name is absent from Bangor West ballots – and with Ms Irwin’s shift to a new location, Alliance now fields three totally unfamiliar faces in the district.
But the party has also exposed itself to risk by backing a controversial move to axe Minor Injuries Units in Bangor and Newtownards in favour of plans to build a new facility in Dundonald’s Ulster Hospital.
They’re the only party to support the axe bid, and their opponents are hoping that position will hit the brakes on Alliance’s surging popularity.
The DUP’s pairing of one incumbent and one hopeful in every seat is a tried-and-true method of consolidating political power, though there’s a real risk of Unionist vote-splitting as the TUV plus several independents aim to win round hardliners angry about the NI Protocol, and take a bite out of the DUP’s base.
The TUV is likely the biggest risk factor for the DUP. They put in an improved performance in first preference votes in last year’s Stormont election; nowhere near scoring an MLA seat, but if that vote holds up it would be good enough to make them competitive at a council level.
The Democratic Unionists are also set for a tussle with two of their own former long-running councillors. Wesley Irvine and Bill Keery, who left the party and are now standing as incumbent independents – part of a loose coalition of indie Unionists put together by popular MLA Alex Easton.
Voters in the Holywood and Clandeboye district will also see a surprise on their ballots as, for the first time in around 40 years, a member of the Dunne dynasty doesn’t appear on the DUP ticket.
That’s because Stephen Dunne has replaced his late father Gordon as MLA; the party is instead running Carl McClean, who defected from the UUP at the start of this year, and veteran councillor Alan Graham, hoping for a comeback after losing his Bangor West seat to Alliance in 2019.
The UUP could be in for a troubling time. Falling in popularity provincewide, in North Down the party was hit by an internal power struggle over fears they were fielding too many candidates and splitting an already low vote.
A newcomer intended to be Carl McClean’s running mate is now the sole UUP candidate for Holywood and Clandeboye; a second candidate is running alongside current deputy mayor Craig Blaney in the crowded Bangor Central district, which has more people vying for a seat than anywhere else in the borough.
Two UUP incumbents should be safe enough in Bangor East and Clandeboye, but the party has picked another newcomer in an attempt to keep hold of the Bangor West seat of veteran councillor and reliable vote-winner Marion Smith, who has retired from politics.
In 2019 the UUP and the Green Party both benefited from Alliance transfer votes, but with Alliance fielding two to three candidates in every North Down district those transfers won’t be around.
For the Greens, who scored highly last time out and are standing a single candidate in every district, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem for their three incumbents, though making gains is less certain; for the UUP, it could easily be a different story.
The Tories and SDLP are both hoping to gain council seats, though it’ll be an uphill struggle for parties that have never enjoyed much electoral success in North Down.
And two high-profile independent councillors, Bangor Central’s Ray McKimm and Bangor East and Donaghadee’s Tom Smith, enjoy a strong backing in their respective districts, but face a competitive field packed with established parties.