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Alliance and unionism battle for hearts and minds in North Down

Bangor Marina in Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)
Bangor Marina in Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

Alliance and unionists are vying to win the hearts and minds of voters in North Down.

Deputy leader of the centre-ground Alliance Party Stephen Farry won the seat at the 2019 General Election ahead of then DUP representative Alex Easton amid a period of bitter division following Brexit.

Five years later the same two men are again vying for the seat but for Mr Easton as an independent unionist.

However retired colonel Tim Collins – known for a rousing pre-battle speech he made while serving in Iraq in 2003 – running for the UUP has significant potential to disrupt expectations.

The race has emerged as one of the most heated so far with tensions high between the three front runners, and Mr Easton contending he has been targeted with “dirty tricks” such as false social media accounts and “attack ads”.

The other candidates have refuted those claims.

North Down has a history of doing its own thing and electing those from smaller parties or independents, from barrister Robert McCartney to Lady Sylvia Hermon.

The constituency follows the Co Down so-called gold coast from Donaghadee to Holywood, taking in some of Northern Ireland’s most affluent areas.

However it also encompasses several socially deprived areas, loyalist strongholds and one of the regions newest cities – Bangor.

Following boundary changes, North Down now includes some of what used to be East Belfast such as Garnerville.

North Down has particular significance for Alliance as the only seat on the green benches it won in 2019.

Just four candidates ran then, a number which has increased to six this election.

Both the DUP and TUV have bowed out in a move likely to bolster Mr Easton, but Mr Collins has contended he can recapture unionist votes “lost” to Mr Farry.

Mr Farry benefited in 2019 from other centre-ground parties withdrawing, but this election the Green Party is running, as well as the SDLP and independent Chris Carter.

Stephen Farry, Alliance Party Westminster candidate for the constituency of North Down pictured at Bangor Marina holding a campaign flyer
Stephen Farry said people ‘want to move away from orange and green politics’ (Liam McBurney/PA)

Sinn Fein has decided not to run, in what is traditionally one of its worst performing constituencies, while the Conservative Party is also missing from what was its best showing in Northern Ireland at the last General Election.

Mr Farry contends voters have noted the rise of Alliance across Northern Ireland to become the third largest party, and want to see that continue.

“People want to move away from orange and green politics,” he said.

“They see the break through that Alliance is making in Northern Ireland over recent years and they want to see that continuing.”

Mr Farry said he would urge all progressives to back him.

“I think people understand it’s either me or one of the two unionists who will be in the final two at the end,” he said.

“Basically people who may well support other parties who may also be progressive in their outlook have a choice to make whether they vote Alliance and try to ensure that this seat stays in the hands of a cross community progressive politician or end up splitting the vote and risk a unionist coming in with potentially some very hard line views.

He added: “I think I have the values that fit in with the constituency. North Down is a changing place, it’s much more diverse and progressive than maybe people would have thought many decades ago. I have the experience over the years of being in elected office.

“I think I have the right skills and qualifications. I am also local. I think I tick all of the boxes.”

Mr Easton said he is “quietly optimistic” ahead of the election, but stressed he “doesn’t take the electorate for granted”.

Alex Easton speaking with voter Jacqueline Cathers on a doorstep in Conlig
Alex Easton (left) speaking with voter Jacqueline Cathers in Conlig (Liam McBurney/PA)

“I’m going to continue doing what I am doing and I believe there will be a positive result at the end of it,” he said.

Despite topping the poll in recent Assembly elections, Mr Easton has missed out on the Westminster seat on three successive elections, 2015, 2017, 2019.

Yet across those elections, he has steadily built his vote from 8,487 in 2015, to 14,940 in 2017 to 15,390 in 2019, just behind Mr Farry on 18,358.

Mr Easton said he believes the addition of the SDLP and Green Party to the race this election will benefit him.

“We’ve got the SDLP and the Green Party running this time, I believe that is beneficial and I’m certainly not complaining about that,” he said.

“I’m a politician that is seen on the ground and somebody that works hard for everybody.”

He has vowed to work to remove barriers to trade across the Irish Sea, as well as fight for more social housing, more funding for the health service and for more police officers.

Mr Easton also contended that he too is a progressive, and said he has had a positive response across all areas of the constituency.

“I have always been someone who works for everybody no matter their colour, creed or religion and that hard work is, I believe, appreciated and something I intend to continue no matter what happens,” he said.

“I am progressive, I care about a lot of issues, including animal welfare, the environment.

UUP Westminster candidate Tim Collins has his picture taken while campaigning in the Kilcooley estate area of Bangor
UUP Westminster candidate Tim Collins wants to regain votes lost to the Alliance Party (Liam McBurney/PA)

“I believe I am the lead unionists and best placed to win the seat for unionism, but I’m there to represent everybody and I have a clear record of doing that.”

Meanwhile Mr Collins is insistent that he can win.

He said: “I think we’re going to win because there has been a big change since 2019 – a lot of the traditional unionist vote that would have gone to Lady Hermon, went across to the Alliance Party, and I think the Alliance Party has let them down in many ways, and I think that vote is going to return to unionism, to me.

“We’ve got a bad reputation with the GB MPs – they’re fed up with us and the negativity. I want to go there and be positive. I want to re-establish relationships and I want to claim back our place in the United Kingdom.”

Mr Collins has hit the headlines several times during the campaign, including over an anecdote about the cost of insuring a car in Northern Ireland compared to insuring his Rolls Royce in England.

He described commentary of him being “fumbling and clumsy”, and said “they missed the point every time”.

He added: “I find it hard to be someone I’m not, and the fact of the matter is, I grew up in a house where we got free school meals. Education was my way out of the estates. I went to university, I joined the army and nearly got myself killed a few times, and then I started a business.

“I brought prosperity to a lot of people and it’s a good thing to give people the opportunity. As a result of that I looked and thought I have enough, I can give something back and I’m ready to serve again here in Northern Ireland.”

The remaining candidates running in North Down are Chris Carter (Independent), Barry McKee (Greens) and Deirdre Vaughan (SDLP).