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Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The battle for Upper Bann

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

It's like wooing a woman, explains DUP Upper Bann campaign manager, David McConaghie. "The Ulster Unionists keep their distance, act coy, and think they'll make the winning move in the final moments.

"We're red-blooded Ulstermen. There's none of this footering around. It's 'Hello there girl, how-are-ye? Get your coat, it's your lucky night!'" The differing tactics in this key constituency say it all.

David Trimble's approach is "standoffish", says the DUP. "Sophisticated", retort the Ulster Unionists. The DUP began campaigning before the election was even announced. "A case of premature electioneering," says Trimble as he sips coffee in Fitzy's café in Banbridge.

The parties offices face each other in Rathfriland Street. Freshly cut flowers and good-luck cards adorn the UUP window. Every inch of DUP glass is plastered with posters of candidate David Simpson. "That's so you can't see nobody's inside," says Trimble's election agent, John Dobson. "They're cardboard cut-outs in the DUP."

Trimble steadfastly refused to canvass or erect posters until he'd lodged his nomination papers in the electoral office. "The DUP man is running around introducing himself as the candidate when officially he is not," says Trimble.

The DUP don't worry about such technicalities. They rise early and are at it all day. Simpson arrives noisily in a white van. "We've the biggest loud-speakers in the western hemisphere. It's an affront to the environment," says his campaign manager with a huge grin.

"And what we've done to Portadown is disgraceful. Every lamp-post on every street has a DUP poster. If a tramp falls asleep in a doorway, he wakes up to a picture of David Simpson beaming down."

The candidate though is no red-neck and usually travels in a top-of-the-range black merc. He started a meat company aged 21 and, nearly three decades later, is a millionaire. He is Mayor of Craigavon and has three teenage children, adopted from India and Paraguay.

He oozes enthusiasm. DUP literature shows him on a building site and mucking out on a farm. He even tried to spend a day with the bin-men collecting rubbish. He's attended 550 council events in 10 months. "He's so keen to get in the papers, he'd go to the development of a road hump," says Trimble's election agent.

It's teeming rain on a chilly night, and Simpson is late for the canvass. "Probably in the mayoral parlour enjoying a finger buffet while we're getting drenched," jokes wife Elaine, glamorous but practical, in a powder blue raincoat.

But the (unofficial) candidate has been to a launch for the new anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOS, which will be directed at troublemakers. "They could be served on you lot," he warns supporters

Seapatrick is a rough and ready place, natural DUP territory. Margaret Close was in bed but, on seeing Simpson, runs outside in dressing-gown and slippers, cigarette in hand.

"I've just got my husband to agree to vote DUP. He had said he'd never do it," she confides. "Give him two eggs every morning until May 5th to keep him sweet," advises Simpson.

Another pyjama-clad woman comes out. "Don't you remember me David?" she asks McConaghie, who doesn't: "I don't tend to recognise women in their nightwear and if I do, I never admit it," he quips. There are hugs for both men from female voters. "Watch out, the wife's only down the road," jokes Simpson.

"Trimble came here at the last election," says Catherine Morrison. "He was all airs and graces. I told him he was a traitor and frogmarched him down the path. His face went this colour," she boasts, pointing to her scarlet sweater.

The most controversial issue is Simpson's weight. "You need a widescreen TV to see David," says his campaign manager. "He's lovely," says a woman. "You don't get out enough!" replies McConaghie.

The DUP's working-class support isn't in doubt. Middle-class votes will decide the election. Oakdale, Kensington and Hayes Park, would have chased the DUP a few years ago.

Now, its canvassers manoeuvre around carefully clipped holly bushes, admiring bird furniture and pots of primroses. Pledges of support come from some houses.

A neat, grey-haired woman is angry that a UUP campaign slogan announces "decent people vote Ulster Unionist". "So if we vote DUP, or Catholics vote SDLP, we're indecent?" she asks.

Local doctor, Philip Weir, who left the UUP for the DUP three years ago, claims old stereotypes don't apply to his new party. "I'm no hardline religious fundamentalist. I'm Quaker actually and I'm perfectly at home in the DUP."

Back in Fitzy's café, Trimble cautions against being "fooled" by DUP banter and bonhomie. "DUP Assembly member Mervyn Carrick was deselected for simply being pleasant to me.

"Simpson doesn't speak to me and ensures that although I'm the local MP, I'm not invited to council functions." Trimble is proud of his record: "When I stand up to speak in the House of Commons, it falls silent.

"I've the ear of the house. Upper Bann has no reason to be ashamed of their member and every reason to be proud." His ability isn't in doubt but what about his lack of people skills?

"That's an untruth spread by the DUP. I've no problem relating to people and I haven't even punched you for suggesting otherwise!" he jokes.

Trimble, under pressure, is in great form. If he loses, what are his plans? "Some people say I could then have a life," he says, smiling at wife Daphne. "But it won't happen. The election will be tight but I'm confident of victory."

The DUP predict they'll win with "1,000 votes to spare". It's 10 p.m. and still raining, but Simpson keeps knocking doors. "Upper Bann," he says "will go to the man who wants it most."

April 19, 2005

This article appears in the April 17, 2005 edition of the Sunday Tribune.