THE quest to reclaim both family honour and East Antrim from the DUP’s Sammy Wilson by Roy Beggs Jr is officially over, with the UUP man declining another attempt at wrenching back the Westminster seat that once belonged to his father.
In this snap election, the job of taking on the current MP’s huge lead instead falls to John Stewart, who clinched a surprise victory just two months ago when he bagged the Ulster Unionists a second assembly seat in the constituency on a night the UUP would otherwise rather forget – one that famously claimed the scalp of Mike Nesbitt.
For as has traditionally been the case in East Antrim, the MP post-June 8 will be a unionist, that much you can bet your house on.
And barring a spectacular DUP implosion, Mr Wilson will be returning to claim that unionist seat in a new-look Westminster where Theresa May hopes a Conservative landslide will negate the need to court fringe parties such as his, as was speculated back in 2015 when all signs pointed to a hung parliament.
Yet that pollster prediction was wrong, so is there any chance this one could also be wide of the mark?
At the last General Election, Mr Wilson walked it with a sturdy 36.1 per cent of the vote. Mr Beggs could only manage 18.8 per cent in comparison.
However, if a week is a long time in politics, then two years is an aeon, and after RHI and the success of youthful rival John Stewart on the assembly ticket, some might argue that if any time is right for Mr Wilson’s star to wane, then this is it.
One factor that will help the DUP sleep easy over East Antrim is the lack of UKIP candidate this year. Noel Jordan collected a solid 10.9 percent of the votes in 2015, but with no UKIP competition, it’s likely that staunch right-wing vote will return to Mr Wilson, who will welcome it with open arms.
Yet despite a seemingly forgone conclusion, the election nevertheless remains an opportunity to shore up support and bolster for future polls – an opportunity unlikely to be missed by the only other candidate with any chance of eating into Mr Wilson’s lead – the Alliance Party’s Stewart Dickson.
The MLA finished a respectable third in 2015, claiming to have made the most of doorstep anger at the DUP/UUP pacts in other constituencies.
The pacts may not (officially) be there this time around, but with 15 per cent of the vote under his belt from the last general election – an increase of almost four per cent for Alliance from when they fielded Gerry Lynch in 2010 – there’s every chance his tally will rise and shrink the gap between his party and the UUP, which was just more than 1,200 two years previous; much too close for comfort for new leader Robin Swann who has barely had time to bed in before being thrust towards the battlefront.
Meanwhile, what of nationalism’s chances in this bastion of unionism? In terms of a general election breakthrough – forget it. But the first republican to win an assembly seat here is back for what may very well be his last time as a candidate in any poll.
Sinn Féin’s Oliver McMullan became only the second nationalist ever to win an assembly seat since the Belfast Agreement in East Antrim, but lost it this year thanks to a UUP resurgence.
All that’s left for him now in this fight is to see if he can maintain his lead over the SDLP, who are once again fielding Margaret Anne McKillop.
Those fond of a wager would be wise to assume Mr McMullan will do so.
The final candidate in East Antrim is the Conservatives’ Mark Logan. If ever a candidate need not bother, it’s a Northern Irish Tory in 2017.
With direct rule looming amid Stormont squabbling and a Conservative landslide very possible, Theresa May’s influence could be strong in East Antrim – and everywhere else in the north – without the need for paper candidates.
Stewart Dickson (All)
Mark Logan (Con)
Margaret Anne McKillop (SDLP)
Oliver McMullan (SF)
John Stewart (UUP)
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
2015 share of vote:
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