Northern Ireland

Nationalist battleground: Can SDLP regain support in Newry and Armagh?

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSouth Down is set to be a key battleground for the nationalist parties

Politicians may sometimes liken an election campaign to climbing a mountain.

Those looking for votes in the Irish nationalist battlegrounds, near the border in counties Down and Armagh, may literally walk up a few hills.

As any constituency will have a tight race for the final seats, it is well worth knocking on the doors of isolated dwellings nestled up high.

Newry and Armagh is a bellwether constituency for nationalist politics.

For almost 20 years, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, was the MP.

That was back when his party was the major force in nationalism.

But Sinn Féin now dominates - holding the Westminster seat and having three Newry and Armagh MLAs to the SDLP's one Stormont representative.

'Retaking ground'

If the electoral dynamics are to shift again, the SDLP will need to make inroads in places like this.

I asked people in Newry about how they voted - and their thoughts generally chimed with the election results over the last 15 years or so.

Image caption Some people in Newry, including this man, said they believed the SDLP had "lost their way" in recent years

A number said they used to vote SDLP, but not any more.

"They seem to have lost their way," said one man.

"They disappeared after John Hume and Seamus Mallon stood down," a woman told me.

But Colum Eastwood - the SDLP's new leader - says he is serious about retaking ground.

At 32, he is the youngest party leader in the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Image caption Colum Eastwood, the new leader of the SDLP, wants his party to regain the support they lost after disappointing elections

South Down MLA Karen McKevitt says he has been "a breath of fresh air".

She will switch constituencies to run in Newry and Armagh in the assembly poll.

"People stop me in the street and say how proud they are that the SDLP have made a change in leadership," she says.

"That's strong. But that also tells me that people are sick of orange-and-green politics.

"They want to see change. We want to make that change."

Image caption SDLP MLA Karen McKevitt said her party's new leader was a "breath of fresh air"

The SDLP goes into the election in May with 14 seats. Sinn Féin has 29.

It will be the republican party's second election this year.

All-Ireland strategy

They hope to improve on their tally in the Irish parliament (Dáil) in the general election expected in the next couple of months.

Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy says standing in both elections is in itself a strategy which will appeal to northern nationalist voters.

"We want to see the breaking down of the barriers that have prevented economic growth in border areas," he explains.

"We're a party that is in a position to do things like that on both sides of the border.

"We don't just talk the talk on reunification - we stand in elections, to have the maximum change from north to south and east to west."

Image caption Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy said his party's strategy of contesting elections on both sides of the Irish border appealed to northern nationalists

He believes the change in the SDLP leadership will not make a difference to Sinn Féin, pointing out that the SDLP has changed leader three times since 2010.

In Newry, the people I spoke to did not seem to be sure yet whether Mr Eastwood would make an impact.

Some welcomed the fact he was young - one expressed hope that younger politicians would help older ones "catch themselves on".

'Fed up'

Others said he needed to raise his profile.

Voters gave a long list of issues which they felt politicians should deal with - transport, health, education, infrastructure.

There were also plenty who said they were "fed up" of politics in general and would not vote this time round.

Image caption Transport and infrastructure were among the political issues that concerned members of the public in Newry

Politicians of all shades talk about these people a lot.

They believe that if they win over would-be non-voters, it will unlock the key to electoral gains.

For nationalist politicians in particular, Newry and Armagh is a strategic and symbolic constituency.

Expect campaigning to step up all the way to Thursday 5 May.

More on this story