Amidst all of the hullabaloo about Margaret Ritchie's courageous one-woman stand against the UDA, and the subsequent bullying she has suffered from the DUP, the media (apart from Brian Feeney in the Irish News) seems to have entirely overlooked her other battleground: the Westminster seat in South Down.
Margaret Ritchie is believed to be the SDLP's chosen successor to Eddie McGrady, who must surely retire at the next Westminster election, when he will be either 74 or 75 (he was born in June 1935). McGrady's seat, in South Down, is a prize that Sinn Féin have their eyes on, and they had even hoped that Caitriona Ruane might take it in 2005 – though McGrady held it comfortably. The seat has the third highest percentage of nationalist votes in the north – over 70% in 2005, second only to West Belfast and Foyle. McGrady won 44.7% to Ruane's 25.8%. Yet, much of McGrady's vote may be personal (perhaps one reason why he, rather that Ritchie, stood in 2005, when the SDLP was feeling the pressure of Sinn Féin's election juggernaut). In the Assembly election this year in South Down, the SDLP vote was 31.4%, only marginally above Sinn Féin's 30.7%. Ritchie's personal vote, at 5,838 was lower than Ruane's 6,334.
So how will the shenanigans up in Stormont effect the vote in South Down when Gordon Brown eventually takes the plunge and calls a Westminster election?
Ritchie herself, in the UDA-CTI funding controversy, has easily won the battle for public opinion. Only the UDA's supporters (including, needless to say, those who vote DUP) actually oppose what she has done. All right-minded people applaud her decision. So if an election was held today, she would probably win the seat with the solid support of the SDLP voters, some undecided nationalists, and quite a few strategic UUP voters.
The DUP cannot, under any circumstances, win South Down. The combined unionist vote is insufficient to slip through the cracks of a divided nationalist vote and steal the seat (like Willie Thompson of yore, over in West Tyrone). The recently announced boundary changes will make this even less likely by transferring some fairly unionist areas in the north of the constituency to Strangford.
So if the DUP 'win' their nasty little battle against Ritchie, forcing her either to resign, or retreat, what effect will this have on South Down?
It cannot strengthen the unionist vote, because that is tribal, and shrinking. It may force Ritchie out of active politics, or at least into a 'lame duck' position.
The only possible beneficiaries of the DUP campaign against Ritchie are Sinn Féin, who are already neck and neck with the SDLP in South Down, and hungry for the seat. If Ritchie is hobbled, and Caitriona Ruane doesn't slip up over the next two years, the seat will go to Sinn Féin when McGrady steps down. The DUP know this too, so why are they gunning for Ritchie so much?