Election 2015 Northern Ireland

Upper Bann: The battleground worrying the DUP

David Simpson
Image caption David Simpson has been out and about campaigning hard to keep his seat

David Simpson is a worried man - he's under attack on two fronts.

For 10 years he has been the MP for Upper Bann. With a majority of 3,361 votes he should feel more comfortable.

But he doesn't. And here's why.

The Ulster Unionist candidate is MLA Jo-Anne Dobson. The DUP says she can't win, but can take enough votes off Mr Simpson to allow Sinn Féin's Catherine Seeley to take the seat on 7 May.

That would be quite an upset.

Upper Bann has always been in unionist hands, but at the last assembly election Sinn Féin was the largest single party by a handful of votes with unionists having to choose between the DUP, UUP, TUV and UKIP.

'Scaremongering'

Westminster is a different kind of election, but David Simpson said unionists have been warned.

"Let's look at the figures," he said.

"I have been accused of scaremongering that the seat could go to Sinn Féin. Let's look at the last elections, not the council elections, but the one relevant to Westminster which was the last assembly election. Sinn Féin won ahead of any other party by 29 votes. The figures are there to prove that.

"I believe that the SDLP could lose a lot of votes to Sinn Féin. Their campaign has not been going that well.

"They may say different, but their campaign has not been going that well so I think they (Sinn Féin) could take away votes from the SDLP and could come up the middle and take the seat. Remember they won it by 29 votes on the last assembly elections."

That is why the DUP wanted the Ulster Unionists to step aside and include Upper Bann in the pact that is now limited to four constituencies: East and North Belfast, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Newry and Armagh.

So why did the Ulster Unionists not agree? Simple. They really believe they can win in the former heartland of David Trimble and Harold McCusker.

And watching Jo-Anne Dobson walk through the centre of her home town of Banbridge, it is easy to see why.

'Study maths'

Shoppers flock to shake hands with the 49-year-old MLA and her equally well-known mother, Joanie.

Image caption Jo-Anne Dobson said she was determined to take the Upper Bann seat in May

Tell her David Simpson says she can't win and the reply is instant.

"I think he needs to go back to school and study maths because this is a unionist seat," she said.

"It always has been a unionist seat and it's been an Ulster Unionist seat for a very long time. The people of Upper Bann are telling me it's been on loan to the DUP for the last 10 years. What has the outgoing MP delivered for Upper Bann?"

She said David Simpson's campaign is built on fear, not hope.

"I am fighting a positive campaign based on the hard work that I have done for this constituency," she said.

"I don't have to fight a campaign of fear and I think that says a lot for the outgoing MP."

Fighting the seat for Sinn Féin is 27-year-old Catherine Seeley.

She made headlines last year when she became the victim of an online sectarian campaign that forced her to stop teaching at a north Belfast secondary school.

'For the taking'

Image caption Catherine Seeley said the Upper Bann seat was Sinn Féin's 'for the taking'

But she showed her star potential shortly after when given a prominent speaking role at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, and since then she's been deputy mayor of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

To some extent, she makes David Simpson's point for him when she says Upper Bann is Sinn Féin's "for the taking".

In 2010, when the Education Minister John O'Dowd was the Sinn Féin candidate, he finished just 402 votes behind the Ulster Unionists who were fighting the election jointly with the Conservative Party.

Some believe Catherine Seeley can do even better, and she is not about to play down expectations.

"You get a combination of things," she said.

"The two unionist candidates have high profiles in the area, so there is talk that it would then split the unionist vote, but I also think that in the area through John O'Dowd and our local councillors that we have delivered, and I think there are SDLP voters on this occasion who are willing to give Sinn Féin a vote.

"Definitely if I was on the sideline at the minute, this would be one of the constituencies I would be watching closely. Nothing is sewn up yet. This isn't a safe seat for anyone and it is ours for the taking."

'Tactical voting'

The SDLP candidate is the party's deputy leader and MLA Dolores Kelly, whose job is to arrest a recent decline in the party's vote.

Image caption Dolores Kelly said the election would be a close call, whatever the outcome

She knows it will not be easy.

"I think there is always an issue of tactical voting by the voters," she said.

"We do have an intelligent electorate. However, I have spoken to a number of people who said that they will never vote for Sinn Féin and certainly many of them would not vote for the unionist parties.

"I think this is going to be a close call in these elections . I know Jo-Anne Dobson is fighting a formidable campaign; the DUP are somewhat frightened about that."

The other candidates are Peter Lavery from Alliance, Damien Harte of the Workers Party; Amandeep Singh Bhogal representing the Conservative Party and Martin Kelly of Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol (CISTA).

Upper Bann has known long and hard battles before.

It is, after all, the constituency of the Drumcree parade dispute. Now, it is witnessing a battle of a different kind, and fought every bit as hard.

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