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North Down Constituency Profile: Lady Hermon's ex-voters may be key

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

image captionLady Hermon is standing down after 18 years in the House of Commons

There will be a new MP for North Down after the general election as independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon is standing down after 18 years at Westminster.

Following candidates on the campaign trail, you witness all kinds of sights and the DUP's Alex Easton is taking his electoral dog fight to a new level.

He has brought along Bailey, his border collie, who is wearing a home-made "Vote Easton" coat.

The two-year-old canine canvasser is a talking point among householders as his owner goes from door to door seeking votes.

image captionThe DUP's Alex Easton says he is "in it to win it"

Alex Easton is facing competition from the Ulster Unionists, the Alliance Party and the Conservatives in the race to succeed Lady Hermon, and he is the bookies' favourite

So who does he fear?

Standing on a Bangor street, he considers the question and then sounds optimistic.

"I don't really look at my rivals," he says. "They do what they do. I do what I do. I am just in it to win it."

image captionBangor Marina: North Down includes some of Northern Ireland's most prosperous neighbourhoods

At the last election, Lady Hermon won the seat, polling nearly 16,200 votes, with Mr Easton just 1,200 votes behind.

It meant more than 80% of those who voted backed unionist candidates.

Alex Easton accepts this is his best chance to win this seat, but he is not taking anything for granted.

"I am trying to get people to come out and vote for me on a personal level even if they don't like the party because of the work that I do," he tells BBC News NI.

"People are concerned about the union. I anticipate there will be quite a high turnout this time."

Personal level

The Ulster Unionists did not run last time, in 2017, but this time the party is back in the field with MLA Alan Chambers.

image captionUlster Unionist Alan Chambers insists the election is a straight fight between him and the DUP

We find him canvassing voters in Groomsport, his home patch.

The 12 December election is a straight fight between the DUP and the UUP, he insists.

"People have to realise a vote for the DUP candidate is in essence a vote for Arlene Foster," he says.

"Her leadership over the last lot of years has been characterised by, I think, failure and incompetence and tainted by scandal. So that is one stark choice for the people of North Down.

"Or they can vote for me. My brand of unionism is progressive; it is respectful, it is inclusive, it is tolerant."

A two-horse race?

Down the coast at Seapark, near Holywood, you will find another view from Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party.

The former Stormont minister insists that it is his party that is pushing the DUP hard.

"We are certainly giving them a run for their money," he says after an afternoon of leafleting and canvassing.

"We are in with a very good chance in North Down of pulling off a surprise.

"This is essentially a two-horse race between the DUP representing Leave and myself representing Remain."

image captionStephen Farry thinks many of Lady Hermon's supporters may turn to Alliance

Mr Farry thinks recent results put Alliance in a strong position.

"We did very well in the local government elections this year and the European election as well," he says. "In Westminster elections, we have had the "Sylvia factor" and she has found votes right across the political spectrum.

"Indeed, many traditional Alliance voters have in the past voted for her."

'Small pool' of voters

Matthew Robinson from the Conservative Party is also in the race - one of four candidates the party is fielding across Northern Ireland.

In the last general election, the Conservatives polled about 950 votes in North Down. The party, which regularly stands in the area, has no local representatives.

It is a small pool for voters to choose from as the Green Party, the SDLP and Sinn Féin have all stepped aside to maximise the pro-Remain vote.

  • Who are the candidates standing in North Down?
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Over the last few weeks, there have been some dirty tricks on the campaign trail in North Down.

There have been fake Alliance Party leaflets, rogue posters have been put up and Mr Easton has been mocked by a fake Twitter account created in his name.

Party posters and banners have been defaced and removed and there have also been reports of UUP canvassers being verbally abused.

What is clear is that this seat is getting a new face and a new name later this month.

Come polling day, the key factor will be how Lady Hermon's supporters vote.

She may not on the ballot paper, but her former supporters will have a big say on who becomes North Down's next MP.

More on this story

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