Son Battles to Win Back Traditonal Unionist Seat; Gavin Jennings Reports from MID ULSTER Where the DUP's Ian McCrea Is Seeking to Oust Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness

Article excerpt

Byline: Gavin Jennings

DRIVING through the notorious bottle-neck of Toomebridge, greeted by Tricolours and hunger-strike remembrance murals, one might be forgiven for assuming the constituency of Mid Ulster to be overwhelmingly republican.

But when the sitting MP, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, defeated the Rev William McCrea of the DUP in 1997, he broke a unionist tradition which stretched back to 1974 - when the Ulster Unionists reclaimed the seat taken by Bernadette Devlin in 1969.

This time around, Mr McCrea has concentrated his efforts on retaining his hard-won seat in South Antrim, leaving 24-year old son, Ian, to carry the family name, as the lone unionist candidate challenging Mr McGuinness.

While the SDLP's candidate in 1992, Dennis Haughey has also handed over the mantle to a junior family member, in the form of party policy officer, 28-year-old Elis Haughey.

It's a three-horse race and, with a population which breaks down generally as 65/35 in favour of nationalists, Ian McCrea's hopes rest on a split of that vote allowing him to make a run for Westminster in the gap in between.

However, more telling, perhaps, in a constituency known for tactical voting, is the question of where the votes of pro-Agreement unionists will fall - as, on principle, it's unlikely that Mr McGuinness will benefit from this section of the electorate.

Will wavering UUP votes side with McCrea or Haughey and can either wrest control from the Mid Ulster MP, who is currently the overwhelming favourite to retain his seat.

Looking at the last election result - before the Agreement - it would at first appear the DUP are the only party who can come close to Sinn Fein.

Ian McCrea, who has worked for his father for the past three years and is also standing for local council, criticises McGuinness' lack of presence, both at Westminster and in the constituency and has pledged ''to give the people of Mid-Ulster a voice in Parliament".

''I will fight for the people of the area, who are against the republican agenda and insure the Belfast Agreement is defeated,'' he said.

Martin McGuinness, meanwhile, has stressed his work for the constituency at Stormont and insists his party do have a voice at Westminster, despite not taking their seats there.

He is promoting his work securing Executive programme funds for the Toombe by-pass project and other work, as proof of ''success of the peace process'' and his role within that. …