Sylvia Hermon, the independent unionist MP for North Down, will not stand in December’s general election. In a move that unexpectedly throws a key battleground into contention, Hermon — the only Remainer and non-DUP MP from Northern Ireland to take their seat after the 2017 election — has retired from politics.
The only unionist voice in Westminster to support the Irish backstop, Hermon voted three times for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement — unlike her neighbours in the DUP. In a statement, the 64-year-old says: “My priorities for the next few years are to spend my time at home in Northern Ireland to see more of my family and to step back from the frontline of public life.” She adds that the decision was “particularly difficult”.
Though Hermon was likelier than not to retain her seat, the circumstances in which she would have done made an unpleasant campaign inevitable. The SDLP and Sinn Féin had both unilaterally withdrawn from North Down to support her candidacy. The latter endorsement posed both political and personal challenges for Hermon: the DUP slashed her majority to just 1,208 in 2017, and, as a widow of a former chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, she has always been a vociferous opponent of Sinn Féin — as anyone who has observed her contributions in Commons debates over devolution will know.
Her departure after 18 years as MP opens up a genuinely unpredictable scrap for North Down, where 52 per cent of voters backed Remain in 2016. The DUP turned the constituency into a marginal overnight in 2017 and will fancy their chances. Their candidate, Alex Easton, also topped the poll in that year’s assembly election. The Ulster Unionists, who have not stood since Hermon resigned her membership of the party over its ill-fated electoral alliance with the Tories in 2009, came a close second at the last Stormont poll. Her departure also grants Steve Aiken, the UUP’s bruised leader-in-waiting, something of a reprieve after reneging on his promise to challenge Nigel Dodds in North Belfast.
Yet, with his claim to have inaugurated a new era of pro-European liberalism for the UUP already in tatters, it is far from clear whether he can pass it. With that in mind, the party who will feel most optimistic about Hermon’s retirement are the cross-community Alliance, who have a similarly strong record locally and will hope to mop up most of her personal vote. The party’s deputy leader, Stephen Farry, is also a local assembly member, as was former Green leader Steven Agnew until last year. North Down was the crucible of the party’s electoral success in Northern Ireland and is historically the closest it has to a heartland.
Having come a clear but distant third in 2017, Alliance will claim that they are the strongest Remain contender. Whether the ad hoc alliance that might have ended up hastening Hermon’s departure rather than securing her return is willing to coalesce around them is another question.
But one thing is certain: victory for one of the big parties cannot be taken for granted. Hermon was the third in a succession of maverick unionists elected in North Down: her predecessors, Bob McCartney and Jim Kilfedder, were similarly singular figures. Her constituency’s idiosyncratic tastes could determine who benefits from her departure just as much as Brexit — assuming, of course, that they have endured.