09 June 2024

DUP aims to hold off Alliance as Lagan Valley elects first new MP since 1997

09 June 2024

For the first time in close to three decades, Lagan Valley is set to get a new MP – with the DUP attempting to hold off the surge of the Alliance Party.

A unionist stronghold since the constituency was created, former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson first won the seat as an Ulster Unionist in 1997 and has defended it ever since.

However, following the political earthquake caused after Donaldson was charged with historical sex offences, which he will contest, the largest unionist party has gone for youth in selecting Jonathan Buckley as its candidate at the General Election.

He is expected to face a stiff challenge from the cross-community Alliance Party’s Sorcha Eastwood, who came second to Donaldson in 2019, while the Ulster Unionists also have a high-profile candidate in deputy leader Robbie Butler.

Lagan Valley, which includes the city of Lisburn and surrounding areas, will be one of the most closely watched counts in Northern Ireland when the ballot boxes are opened due to the turmoil caused by the Donaldson charges and the prospect that unionism could be vulnerable in a seat once considered impregnable.

The hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) will also run in the area, which could further fracture the unionist vote.

Aiming to prevent that is Mr Buckley, considered one of the rising stars of the DUP at 32. He was the party’s youngest MLA when first elected to Stormont in the neighbouring Upper Bann constituency in 2017.

His nomination surprised some, with two of the DUP’s highest profile figures – deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly and Education Minister Paul Givan – both representing Lagan Valley at Stormont. However, the party’s new leader Gavin Robinson has prioritised stability in the newly restored powersharing institutions while gambling that a fresh face can energise the voting base.

Mr Buckley stresses his close family links with Lisburn while also pointing out that boundary changes have brought 7,000 voters from the Upper Bann constituency he currently represents into Lagan Valley.

He said: “Lagan Valley has from its inception elected a representative that believes in Northern Ireland, believes in its place within the United Kingdom, and I want to continue in that vein.

“I have heard talk about Lagan Valley being a watch-seat constituency; I think the voters know the constituency better than many of the pundits and certainly the messages I’ve been receiving is they want to get out behind me and ensure we can elect a unionist that can win in this election.

Lagan Valley has on every occasion since its inception had over 65% voting unionist in that constituency

“Every election brings with it risk. No party can lay claim to any voter. The voter’s right to vote how they please is their mandate, their responsibility.

“Lagan Valley has on every occasion since its inception had over 65% voting unionist in that constituency.

“What a shame it would be if that great constituency did not elect a member of Parliament that not only believed in Lagan Valley and believed in Northern Ireland, but was also passionate about putting its case forward in Parliament.”

Mr Buckley said his party is committed to delivering stability at Stormont while also ensuring Northern Ireland’s voice is heard at Westminster.

He said: “My two colleagues, Emma Little-Pengelly and Paul Givan, have kindly encouraged me and put a great responsibility upon my shoulders to ensure this constituency has representation at Westminster.

“They have prioritised stability of the Executive. I think the people of Northern Ireland are crying out for that stability and they will continue to deliver on that.

“There’s an important job of work to be done (at Stormont).

“But there’s also an important job of work to be done at Westminster.”

While Mr Buckley is running in the constituency for the first time, Ms Eastwood, 38, of the Alliance Party is a familiar face, having represented the area at local council and as an MLA.

Prolific on social media, she says the job of winning the seat began immediately after the 2019 election when she took a significant chunk out of Donaldson’s majority, narrowing the gap between the two parties to 6,500 votes.

Now, she insists, the DUP and Alliance are running neck and neck.

Ms Eastwood said: “We have been waiting five years to re-run this contest. In 2019 we seriously dented the DUP majority and we are ready to finish the job this time.

“We have been doing the job for years, we don’t knock doors just at election time. We are listening and working with the community all the time.

“We know that Lagan Valley is a changing, vibrant, diverse constituency and it needs representation to match.

“I have lived in Lisburn all my life, I’m Lagan Valley born and bred, and we know that our message is resonating with voters on the doors.”

Lagan Valley is not a unionist seat. Alliance work for everybody

Ms Eastwood also rejects any suggestion that the constituency is a natural unionist seat.

She said: “Lagan Valley is not a unionist seat. Alliance work for everybody. We are not in the business of representing just unionists, nationalists or others, we represent everybody.

“That is why Alliance are neck and neck with the DUP in Lagan Valley.”

Ms Eastwood also believes it is only herself or the DUP who can win in the area.

She said: “This is definitely a two-horse race in Lagan Valley, the numbers bear that out.”

This suggestion has frustrated the Ulster Unionist Mr Butler, who believes his personal popularity can help to spring a surprise come election night.

The 52-year-old former firefighter from Lisburn also points to the unpredictability of the election, following the resignation of Donaldson.

He said: “With some of the leaflets which are being put out, particularly by the Alliance Party, they are trying to frame this as a two-horse race and I think that’s disingenuous and I think its low-level politics, to be honest.

“From my perspective in Lagan Valley I am confident that eight years as an MLA, a councillor before that and 30 years of work before politics will stand me well in this election.

“In previous elections I do know that there were many people out there who had indicated previously that they would like to vote for me in the General Election, but whilst the former MP was there they would continue to vote for that former MP.

“I am now speaking to those people and they are absolutely clear that they have wanted to vote in the past for me and will do so now.

“The former MP’s vote was very much a personal vote.

“In Lagan Valley it is very clear the two-year boycott of Stormont was unpopular, the delivery of the Irish Sea border as a consequence of Brexit is very unpopular, and they are sick and tired of the narrative of ‘them ones and us ones’ and they want someone they can trust.

“We absolutely believe we can and we absolutely believe we will take the seat.”

Also running in Lagan Valley is Patricia Denvir of the Green Party, Simon Lee of the SDLP and Lorna Smyth of the TUV.

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