So after a lot of speculation concerning his future intentions, South Down MP Eddie McGrady has finally announced that he will not stand again this year.
The immediate question is who will replace him – as SDLP candidate, and as MP.
His decision to stand down may have been made as a result of Margaret Ritchie's election as leader of the SDLP – she is, after all, from South Down, and now that she is leader of the SDLP it may seem appropriate that she is 'elevated' to Westminster like Mark Durkan before her.
However, it is too early yet to say if that is Ritchie's wish or intention – the SDLP are irrelevant in Westminster, and their band of MPs there is small and may get smaller this year. Trying to lead the party from virtually solitary isolation in Westminster when increasingly the action is in Belfast would be difficult, frustrating and probably counter-productive.
However, the SDLP's continued hold on South Down is not guaranteed.
In 2005 Eddie McGrady retained the seat with a large lead over his rival, Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Féin – he received 44.7% of the vote compared with Ruane's 25.8%. But a part of that vote was clearly personal, because two years later, in the 2007 Assembly elections the SDLP as a whole received only 31.4% of the vote – barely more than the Sinn Féin total of 30.7%. And in 2007 Ruane actually polled more personal votes than Ritchie – 13.7% of the total, to Richie's 12.7%.
Clearly Ritchie's increased profile as new leader of the SDLP will help her, as will strategic voting from unionists. McGrady probably received around 1000 'unionist' votes – people who knew that a unionist candidate could not win, but wanted to ensure that Sinn Féin did not. In 2007 the unionist vote (and % of the total vote) recovered, as in a multi-seat constituency with STV PR there was no need to vote strategically, at least where the first preferences are concerned.
The reality, though, is that this is an SDLP stronghold, and the SDLP should retain the seat, with or without strategic voting from unionists – though there is little doubt that there will be such strategic voting. Unionism has no hope whatsoever of winning back the seat – the combined unionist vote, 28.2% in 2005 and 31.8% in 2007, is insufficient to beat either nationalist candidate except in exceptional circumstances.
If Ritchie does not seek or get the SDLP nomination, it may go to one of the other leading SDLP members in the constituency – however the two obvious 'next choices', PJ Bradley and Eamonn O'Neill, are both probably too old to consider starting a Westminster career – they will be respectively 70 and 66 this year. The SDLP seem to have an age issue in South Down – all of their leading members are at or close to retirement. They have a good number of district councillors in the area, but it could be risky putting up someone who is little-known outside their own locality against a name as prominent as Caitriona Ruane. Perhaps, despite any personal preference of her own, Ritchie may feel obliged to stand here in the Westminster election.