“If Sylvia was running, she would’ve romped this street,” laughed Stephen Farry, the deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s cross-community Alliance party, as he knocked on doors on a residential street in Bangor on a cold December evening . “She’s doing better than I am tonight,” he joked.
That was several weeks ago. The Sylvia in question is Lady Hermon, the highly regarded and much-liked former independent unionist MP for North Down. Farry, as of last night, is her successor. He is only the second Alliance politician to be elected to Westminster in the party’s 49-year history.
When Hermon announced her surprise retirement in November, she left a key electoral battleground wide open. Since 2010 she had served as an independent MP for the constituency, after resigning from the UUP in protest at the party’s alliance with the Conservatives. As an independent unionist, she was pro-Remain, pro-backstop, progressive and pro-union. She was a lone Northern Irish Remainer voice in the 2017 parliament, alongside the ten DUP MPs in the House of Commons. The seat became very much hers, with no neat party associations: it was “Lady Sylvia’s seat”, as I heard time and again on my visit, while voters described themselves as “Sylvia voters” or “Lady Hermon supporters”.
“I would hope that we would take the largest share of Sylvia’s vote,” Farry told me of those 16,000 former Hermon voters who were looking for a new electoral home. “Even though she was a unionist, and we’re not a unionist party, as such, we are representing similar values in terms of being pro-European, pro-Good Friday Agreement, inclusive, progressive. A lot of our voters in previous general elections would have tactically voted for her.”
This assessment would prove entirely correct. From the outset, this was understood to be a battle between Alliance and the DUP, which came just over 1,200 votes behind Hermon in 2017. The DUP candidate, Alex Easton, hoped to maintain his 15,000 votes while the Hermon vote split between Alliance, the moderate unionist UUP and the Northern Irish Conservatives.
It wasn’t always clear how that Hermon vote would split. There is a saying in Northern Ireland that North Down, on the coast less than half an hour’s drive from Belfast, is divided between “the yachts and the have-yachts”. It is made up largely of seaside towns, and has come to be defined by the many large houses with sea views that hug its coastline (Van Morrison owns one). Indeed, when knocking on doors with the local Northern Irish Conservative candidate, “I’ll see you down at the [yacht] club on Sunday,” was a common refrain.
North Down is affluent, and decidedly unionist: nationalist parties typically take less than 2 per cent of the vote here. (The SDLP, Greens and Sinn Fein stood aside for Farry here as the only pro-Remain candidate, although their share of the votes in North Down was small.) But the area also has pockets of deprivation and, lurking beneath the surface, a loyalist paramilitary presence. As with most paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, this amounts to straightforward criminal gangs trading in illegal drugs and using violence to control their markets, under the label of loyalism or republicanism: in North Down it is the UDA. It is against this backdrop of yachts, big houses, firm unionism and the distant menace of loyalist paramilitaries that the cross-community Alliance candidate triumphed.
Farry’s framing of the race was simple. “Here in North Down this will be a well-framed Remain vs Leave choice, in that I’m the strongest Remain option and the DUP represent Leave,” he told me. The seat voted to Remain, and that was Farry’s obvious point of overlap with Hermon. But in a strongly unionist seat like North Down, the obvious point of difference with Hermon looked as if it might stand in Farry’s way.
Against the backdrop of a perceived threat to the union due to the checks between GB and NI that would result from Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, voters in North Down were told by the UUP, NI Conservatives and DUP to back a candidate who would stand up for the union, arguing that that candidate couldn’t be Farry. “Stephen Farry claims Sylvia Hermon has been a strong voice for Remain in the House of Commons,” wrote the local UUP candidate, Alan Chambers, on Twitter during the campaign. “She was, but more important for the unionist voters in North Down (81 per cent in last Westminster election), Sylvia always spoke up for the Union.” The DUP, meanwhile, made the case that it was simply the strongest unionist option in North Down with an already sizeable presence in Westminster.
On doorsteps, some voters were open about the discomfort of voting for a non-unionist candidate. (Alliance is neither unionist or nationalist, but aims to assert people’s right to identify as “neither”.) “I’ve never voted Alliance before,” one said with a pained expression. “My sister says I would let the side down by voting Alliance,” said another. One woman, speaking to the Conservative candidate, confessed she thought it just wouldn’t be right to elect a non-unionist for North Down.
On the doorsteps, too, it was difficult to tell how Farry was doing. A jolly man with a soft touch when chatting with voters, he was reliably received with a warm smile of recognition (he is a regular guest on BBC NI political programmes) as he nimbly informed people he hoped to be the best person to step into Hermon’s shoes, “even though her shoes would never quite fit!”
Certainly, many former Hermon voters told him that he would have their vote, and an even bigger number seemed open to the idea, but many more said they would need to “have a sit down with the leaflets”. An even larger portion of those he canvassed smiled politely but kept their voting intention entirely private: North Down is a popular part of Northern Ireland for ex-police officers to retire in privacy and anonymity.
Even by Farry’s own admission, Brexit was not the key issue coming up on doorsteps, nor the DUP’s record in Westminster, or Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Rather, it was the combined frustration with the local assembly deadlock (Stormont has been suspended since January 2017) and the crisis in the local NHS. The potential harm of Brexit is still “abstract” to many people, he said while canvassing that night, but the breakdown in the health service is already happening.
That day saw the first of the current strikes, which are ongoing, by Northern Ireland’s nurses as they press for pay parity with healthcare staff in the rest of the UK and a resolution to what they describe as “unsafe” staffing levels in Northern Irish hospitals. This came up on almost every doorstep: frustration at the Stormont deadlock, sympathy with the nurses and worry about cancelled operations. In July, the Nuffield Trust found that one in every 16 patients in Northern Ireland remains on a waiting list for a year or more, and in November more than 300,000 people were waiting for consultant appointments. Farry mainly just listened to voters’ concerns about the health service, and agreed.
None of the parties here had planned their election strategy around the NHS, however. The health service is a devolved matter and the crisis largely a function of the lack of leadership from a dormant Stormont. But on the doorsteps, voters were unanimous in their frustration and the need for a functioning executive. While they tended not to say who they blamed for the deadlock, Farry’s opinion was that voters see it as the fault of the DUP and Sinn Fein. The local NHS crisis therefore created a strange phenomenon in that while it was clearly very important, there was no clear indicator of how it would shape the end result. It still isn’t clear whether Farry’s victory was caused by or increased by the issue.
When I met with Farry’s rival, the DUP’s Alex Easton, I had a sense that the odds might not fall in Farry’s favour. Easton informed me he had been out canvassing since the day the election was called (Alliance waited until Hermon announced her retirement) and had knocked on 28,000 doors: almost every home in the constituency, almost unheard of during a campaign. When we met during my visit, Easton brought with him a DUP colleague, a local councillor, Wesley Irvine. His face was familiar, I realised: it appeared in papers across the UK when, in 2017, he was accused of having attended a UDA meeting in North Down and of circulating DUP election material there. (He has always insisted the event was a “flute band meeting”.) Easton was also criticised in 2016 for writing a letter of recommendation for an alleged UDA commander to take on a post at a charity, describing him as “outstanding”. When we met, Easton emphasised that he just liked helping people out. He was the one who sorted out issues on the estates, who knew the local community, he said.
In the end, however, the voters of North Down broke in favour of Farry, electing him with 18,358 to the DUP’s 15,390. In Sylvia Hermon, the voters of North Down had a progressive, pro-Remain, unionist MP. In electing Farry they have shown that her unionism was not the priority for these voters, and that the progressive and pro-Remain elements were more influential than anyone expected.