N. Ireland Politics

NI Assembly elections: Women leading battle for Upper Bann

Clockwise: Jo-Anne Dobson, Dolores Kelly, Catherine Seeley and Carla Lockhart
Image caption Jo-Anne Dobson, Dolores Kelly, Catherine Seeley and Carla Lockhart are among the candidates standing for election in Upper Bann

It is a constituency that takes its name from a river, but politics here has never flowed quietly.

Those who represent this place at Stormont are either unionist or nationalist, and the battle for power in Upper Bann has often been a heated and divisive one, as the tension between the DUP and UUP camps showed at last year's Westminster election.

Upper Bann has also been the scene of electoral battles between Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

At present, Upper Bann is made up of two Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) assembly members, two from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and one each from Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

High profile

The new year has brought a fresh election and a series of new names on the assembly ballot paper.

This year the local parties have all selected high profile women and their number includes Carla Lockhart, a DUP councillor who also works for sitting DUP MLA Stephen Moutray.

She defeated him in a selection contest and now wants his job.

Image caption The tightly-contested constituency takes its name from the River Bann

Speaking to the BBC NI programme, The View, she said: "Stephen has decided at this stage to take a look at his own business interests, so I therefore will be putting my best foot forward and delivering for Upper Bann."

Like Ms Lockhart, Catherine Seeley of Sinn Féin is fighting her first assembly election and thinks she has a good chance of success in May.

'Small margin'

"We are very much focussed on myself and [Education Minister] John O'Dowd getting two seats," she said.

"We came so close in the previous assembly election. It was a very small margin."

If Sinn Féin succeeds in taking two seats, the woman who might lose out is the sitting SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly.

A veteran of election campaigns, Ms Kelly has defied the critics before and thinks she will triumph again.

"Sinn Féin's real intent is to topple the SDLP from this constituency and I am not going to be the candidate that allows that to happen," she told the BBC.

"I am proud to represent this constituency and I intend to serve the people of Upper Bann for another five years."

Back in the 2011 assembly election, two of Sinn Féin's candidates outpolled the SDLP on the first count but the party only took one seat.

It means that transfers and vote management will be key in this constituency.

Veteran journalist Victor Gordon has covered many electoral campaigns in Upper Bann.

"Sinn Féin will have to manage their vote very carefully because they got quite a good first preference but the transfers did not come to them last time and they are going to have to split their vote 50/50 throughout the constituency to make it," he said.

'Variety'

The Ulster Unionists are fielding three candidates, including sitting MLA Jo-Anne Dobson.

She welcomes her female rivals, saying: "I think it shows we have a variety of excellent candidates going forward."

Even though her party normally only secures two seats she rejected any suggestion that the UUP are running too many candidates.

"I think we are offering the electorate choice, a fantastic choice, and I am very much looking forward to taking to the doorsteps," she said.

In the coming weeks economic matters, health care and Troubles legacy issues are all expected to surface during the election campaign.

The four larger parties are expected to face challenges from the other parties including Alliance, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

This constituency is always worth watching. The election may be three months away but Upper Bann is already making headlines.

The View will be broadcast on BBC One NI at 22:45 GMT on Thursday, 4 February.