Can a Unionist win in West Belfast?

When we think about West Belfast in this election, the focus generally goes to Gerry Carroll, Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

But there is another contender for one of the final seats and that is the DUP’s Frank McCoubrey.

Tonight I was invited out on the canvass with the candidate and the party’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds.

A team of 10 canvassers covered more than several hundred houses over two and half hours of pounding the streets.

Before we began, the campaign manager, Phillip briefed the canvassers on some of the key issues in the local area and made sure that canvassers were aware of the work that Frank had been doing locally and the party’s position on some relevant matters.

Some noteworthy things I picked up from this canvass was that the All About Arlene factor is a real card for the DUP. Whenever a canvasser was presented with a query about the candidate, the conversation would quickly turn towards “we want Arlene back as First Minister” which seemed to resonate with some punters on the doors.

McCoubrey himself is a well known face in the area with many knowing who his work from his run on Belfast City Council and a relatively high profile amongst sections of the Unionist electorate in the constituency. He seemed to be very relaxed and comfortable talking with people and as a candidate confident that Unionists would turn out in enough numbers to help put him over the line.

Some of the folks behind the campaign are aware that this is an uphill struggle that means they cannot afford to let many voters stay at home or miss a trick in terms of getting round as many houses as possible or leave any issues raised not dealt with.

As I walked around I listened to some of issues people were raising on the door, some folks were concerned about classroom assistants, one gentleman raised the DUP’s opposition to same sex marriage and others raised some concern about aspects of the delivery at Stormont.

Essentially I found the DUP pitch to be simple, West Belfast has been without Unionist representation at a Assembly level of 9 years and that if people turned out, McCoubrey had a chance to get in, which alluded to their wider message of supporting Arlene Foster.

Can he win?

With such a tight race it is three weeks out impossible to call either way.

One constant across West Belfast is that Gerry Carroll’s growth in support has changed the dynamic of this election in the constituency. Where do his transfers go, if he even has any? Will Attwood be squeezed by a rising Carroll and Unionist vote? Will enough Unionists turnout and enough Nationalists stay home?

I suppose at the end of the canvass, I was left with more questions than answers.

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  • banana man

    Going by social media Sinn Féin are clearly bricking it going by the amount of appearances from the party hierarchy

  • fralycis

    Personally, I think there’s more chance of SF Seat #5 than a DUP seat here. McCoubrey may have some profile, but not as high-profile as someone like Diane Dodds back in the day. The Arlene factor can only go so far…

    Also worth noting that when she was elected in 2003, the UUP and PUP had raked in 6% of the first preference vote – the transfers just edging Dodds over SF #5. In 2007, the PUP didn’t stand and the UUP vote was down to less than 2% first pref. Clearly not good enough to reelect Dodds, despite her increasing her vote by more than 1000. (Yes, SF balanced their five candidates better in 2007, and the SDLP vote was down). In any case, the SDLP are only running Attwood this time, compared with a running mate in 2011, which can only help.

    Yeah, I concede there’s an outside chance in 2016, if UUP’s Martin transfers strongly to McCoubrey. Maybe only having two unionist parties standing won’t split the vote as much. But as you say, the Unionists really NEED to get out and vote if they even want a shout for the last seat. Fully expect Attwood’s and Carroll’s profile to come home comfortably, with their strong pockets of local support. Even on a terrible day for SF, their 5th candidate will easily transfer enough votes upon elimination to elect the other 4 runnning mates. The question is: which SF MLA will lose their seat?

    Edit: even more interesting question that came to mind is who would lose their seat in 2021 when seats go down to 5 (and that’s assuming the Belfast boundaries remain unchanged…) Is this potentially the last electoral opportunity for a Unionist MLA to get elected in WB?

  • csb

    I’d say that 4 SF, 1 PBP and 1 SDLP is a near certainty here. McCoubrey will struggle too much for transfers after the UUP candidate is eliminated.

  • Jollyraj

    Why not? The Shinners don’t seem to have done a great deal in decades in what they seem to regard as their personal fiefdom.

  • mjh

    Yes. There is clearly a unionist quota, or close enough to one.

    In 2011 the combined unionist vote was only 0.82 of a quota.

    In 2014 it was equivalent to 1.1 quotas, and in 2015 to 0.92 . Either of those would see the DUP safely across the line.

  • Granni Trixie

    Don’t you think that the decline in SDLP support generally ( under AMCD) will impact n votes for Attwod?

  • submariner

    No. Because Unionists would never vote for someone who has been associated with terrorists

  • Jag

    I was about to say the same thing about the chances of a Shinner in East Belfast but remembered that Niall O’Donnghaile is both an MLA candidate on 5th May and a Seanad candidate (the second chamber of the Irish parliament in Dublin) on 26th April, and if you look at Niall’s twitter profile, it just refers to the Seanad bid! That’s how insignificant the Shinners’ chances are in East Belfast.

  • Barneyt

    Of course they will…but not the green ones

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Agree BM – I have also noticed a lot off “White Faces” not the celebrating 2016 then envisaged if they lose 2 MLAs from the heartland !

  • Gary Thompson

    As a (small U) WB unionist I’m not sure I could bring my self to vote for the DUP. The leaflet that came through our door was mostly about Arlene, with just the back panel about the candidate. Personally, I’ve never see McCoubry where I live (Suffolk), whereas the UUP candidate was born in the estate. I’ll probably vote UUP no1, then decide who gets the transfers on the day. I must admit I’m heartened to see that Gerry Carroll has said he will designate as ‘other’ if he is elected, and that could get him more than a few unionist transfers. It will be interesting at any rate to see how the SF support has held up, and if there is any 1916 celebrations boost or backlash.

  • Msiegnaro

    McCoubrey looks like an uneasy fit for the DUP, his paramilitary trappings will make some in the party a little uneasy and is he more socially liberal on issues such as same sex marriage and abortion?

    The above however will play better towards his constituents, as a working class Loyalist he is likely to garner more votes this way. I don’t think he will reach the quota unfortunately, it will take all Unionists voting for him and as Gary Thompson has indicated he is likely to spoil his vote.

  • Paddy Reilly

    This assumes that the PUP ex UVF and UUP voters would transfer to a DUP candidate with UDA associations.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Yes there is a chance but it depends on turnout, arguably low turnout. I think it is a bit awful though we get another thread simply on the drama of electoral politics with absolutely no focus on the issues the electorate care for at the doorstep.

    It doesn’t matter if you are a unionist, nationalist or neither most outside observers of the West Belfast contest couldn’t care less about what policies and even people these parties put before the electorate.

    Then if there is any focus on any issue, it is then the tribal silos.

    There’s very little appetite in our media to see politics in action here.

  • Msiegnaro

    The drama is a little exciting you have to admit!!

  • Kev Hughes

    I think it’s more his personal vote, that and those who voted SDLP are dying off. Go to Milltown (not the Republican section) and I’m sure you’ll find a huge number of their former voters there.

    If memory serves me well, the SDLP vote flatlined at Westminster (a different election of course) but Attwood comes across as somewhat prickly at times, not exactly enamouring him to any public.

  • Ryan A

    I have a feeling Jennifer McCann and Alex Maskey should be safe enough. I think it will be one of the other three who miss out. PBP might help Attwood home, and I think Frank will be close but not close enough for Seat No. 6.

  • Thomas Barber

    Theres not a snowballs chance in hell of a unionist being elected to the assembly in West Belfast just like Gerry Carroll.

  • mjh

    I wouldn’t argue with that Paddy. Only time will tell if the DUP have helped or hindered the chances of taking a unionist seat by their pick of candidate.

    All I will say is that paramilitary associations have not often proved an insurmountable obstacle in either unionist or nationalist politics. McCoubrey is certainly a popular figure in unionist politics. In support of both of those points look at the Court DEA in 2014. Topping the poll – Frank McCoubrey. Coming second Billy Hutchinson.

    It’s part of a tradition in West Belfast which goes right back to Hugh Smyth’s election in 1973 under a joint umbrella ticket of ‘West Belfast Loyalist Coalition’ together with the UUP and Vanguard candidates. Ironically the only unionist candidate who remained outside the grouping with the UVF spokesman was the DUP. And he was the only one not elected.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Like most constituencies, at least half the seats are safe.

  • Gary Thompson

    If by spoil my vote you mean I’m unlikely to vote DUP then guilty. However, rest assured I won’t spoil my vote in the way most people understand the phrase. I will exercise my democratic right to vote for the candidate(s) I believe most chime with my political beliefs.

  • fralycis

    I think if Eastwood keeps his public profile strong and highlighting the new generation of SDLP politicians (e.g. Nichola Mallon standing in North Belfast), with the John Hume-era likes of Attwood (who let’s remember will attract the more moderate voters – especially West Belfast’s Catholic contingent. He’s the only pro-life nationalist there too.)
    The Upper Falls area of the constituency has continually provided a nice pocket of voters for the Attwoods. Carroll’s eating away at SF votes in the less favourable SDLP areas in the Black Mountain DEA, and the more affluent areas in WB that aren’t so left-leaning will need to lose their apathy on the day.
    In short, yeah there will be a decline with PBP’s new face on the block, but you never know, Attwood (without a running mate this time) could even be elected for seat #5 on a good day for them. SF have every right to be nervous.

  • fralycis

    Agree with that. Fra McCann should easily come through too (historically has had plenty of support in the Lower Falls area). I wouldn’t want to bet between McCorley or Sheehan – I think it will be very very close. Yeah, will keep a keen eye out for the directions of PBP transfers (if they are transferable in many cases…)

  • Paddy Reilly

    Yes but in the 2014 Court affair Frank McCoubrey (associated with UDA) was in opposition to Bill Hutchinson (ex UVF). I believe there is bad blood between these two organisations, which is more recent than 1973. You have not shown a single candidate receiving the votes of both, which would be necessary to win a MLA in West Belfast. McCoubrey is a very poor Unionist Unity candidate.

  • fralycis

    I agree that it’s unfortunate that every run-up to Assembly elections focusses on the designation of marginal MLA seats. Interesting that the ‘all politics is local’ idea disappears when outsiders want the big picture, the make up of the next 5 years of Stormont.
    But putting the Arlene/Martin FM race and ministries selection aside: SF retaining 5 seats is important if SF want to reach the magic 30 seats (say if they can (unlikely) hold the other 24 and make a gain in another marginal – not many guesses needed for where that seat will lie…)
    Clearly a clear Unionist Unity candidate will be on many minds should McCoubrey fail on 5th May…

  • mjh

    Unfortunately for both of us, as I’m sure you know, there is no conclusive evidence in the electoral records which could settle this question.

    If next month McCoubrey is elected it will show his associations have not harmed him electorally.

    If he is unsuccessful simply because UUP voters fail to transfer at the levels they do to other DUP candidates, we will know that his associations have harmed him. And if he fails because the DUP vote numbers are perceptibly below the levels commensurate with their performance everywhere, in the absence of any other obvious explanation, there will be a strong prima-facia case that the DUP selected the wrong candidate.

    Let’s wait and see.

  • Redstar

    The Shinners have peaked. Apart from ( hopefully) PBP getting elected in WB the most telling figure will be the low overall turnout. The days of 80%+ turnouts in WB are long gone as more and more people see through the SF career politicos

  • Redstar

    MC coubrey looks an uneasy fit for the Dup , his paramilitary trappings …..

    Are you for real? They have loyalist paramilitaries in their ranks from both UDA and UVF with convictions for murder, weapons robberies etc. No paramilitary links my backside

  • Msiegnaro

    You might as well vote for Sinn Fein then.

  • Gary Thompson

    Because otherwise it’s just a wasted vote from a Unionist perspective? You’re probably right, but as I’ve indicated I’m not inclined to fall into the sectarian pigeon hole ascribed to me because I come from a unionist background. I can’t vote for the DUP for a number of reasons, not least of which is their small minded bigotry about many issues such as equal marriage rights, the right to choose etc. I will probably vote UUP which will no doubt be a token gesture as they in all likelihood won’t garner enough preferences to get a seat, but it’s where I place my second and perhaps third choice which will be more telling. Rest assured it unlikely to be SF.

  • Granni Trixie

    But in previous Slugger posts didn’t someone in the know say that Niall was raising his profile with the intention of being next to take over MO’M seat in SB?

  • Ryan A

    Hard to know, but if a lot of them don’t transfer on (and I think Carroll will romp home with anywhere between 15-20%) it might help McCoubrey more than anyone.

  • Granni Trixie

    Didn’t someone called Bill Mainwearng stand for the UUP in recent years and do reasonably well? Anybody remember?

  • Declan Doyle

    PBP on record seem more likely to transfer to SF sothe SDLP might be the victim in WB.

  • Declan Doyle

    Arlene is a refreshing change from the old style Unionist demogogues we are used to but her statements on homosexuality, st Patricks day and her attitude to the Irish language suggest she is not as progressive as one would wish.

  • Declan Doyle

    I think if you check the education stats you might find that youngsters from west Bel are actually doing much better nowadays then when Unionism was in charge.

  • mjh

    Bill Manwaring stood for UCUNF and UUP at Westminster, Assembly and Council elections from 2010 to 2015. In between he spent a short period of time in the NI Conservatives.

    He was closely associated with the modernising section of the UUP and attracted some attention for his campaigning in nationalist parts of the constituency.

    His best result was in the Court DEA of Belfast City in 2014 when he hit 5.7% of the first preference vote, but was always well outpolled by the DUP.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Does that logic apply to unionist voters in mid Ulster too?

  • Gopher

    Can a unionist win? Yes there is that possibility but surely Slugger as it has done with the West Tyrone is playing the sectarian card? The story here is SF and simply SF. It is immaterial if A unionist is elected and SF remain on 5. The story is the 5 and how many remain and it does not matter one iota who wears what hat if it ain’t one of those 5. This election is solely about SF

  • Brendan Heading
  • Brendan Heading

    I believe Bill was heavily involved in the successful campaign to elect Danny Kinahan in South Antrim.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I agree many people don’t vote because they don’t want a “donkey with a ribbon” as the metaphor goes.

    A state is only as democratic as the politicans allow them to be, and the politicans are only as democratic as the people allow them to be. Look at the Corbynite revolution, look at People’s Democracy.

    Sometimes people will vote against acquiring more democracy.

    We saw this when the UK voted against AV and another example is when the Swiss voted against (the Irish like measure of) having every treaty they make with the EU subject to referendum.

    People are happy to pass responsibility onto elected officials if they are too bored with the belief of taking the power and responsibility (and consequences) back for themselves.

  • barnshee

    Since people attended the schools of their parents choice and the schools have always been fully funded what difference did who was in charge matter?

  • Granni Trixie

    Thanks,mph. But to get back to the question posed – sounds like he was unionists best chance. Unless circs have significantly changed?

  • Declan Doyle

    The difference maybe has to do with their environment. Children now have equal opportunities. Today, Catholic background kids have a brighter future and as a result tend to do better in school without the state or loyalists attacking their homes or discriminating against them. Some might argue that both Sinn fein and the SDLP have played a major part in changing that environment to the benifit of all the people.

  • Declan Doyle

    What will also be interesting to watch is where Carroll’s votes will come from and who will be the main loser in terms of numbers. Will he attract enough new voters to bring him home on its own? Or will he rely on attracting votes away from the two traditional nationalist parties? This is where turnout will be key and tell us if the arrival of PBP is attracting new voters to the polls.

  • Declan Doyle

    Its unlikely SF are bricking it. Dropping from 5 to 4 out of 6 MLA’s in one constituency is something they must now accept as a real possibility given Carrolls rise. In these days of political evolution and maturity its very unusual for one party to have such a huge majority in one area. Is there any other party in Ireland anywhere who holds so many seats in one area? The SDLP however might well be bricking it. PBP tend to transfer heavily to SF (esp in the South), it could happen that Attwood gets squeezed out and SF hold their 5. Then again, if McCoubrey fails to get his message across and enough Unionists vote tactically against SF in favour of SDLP/PBP…. its going to be very interesting.

  • Gopher

    I think it will be infinitely more interesting to learn where Carroll’s vote transfers to. Will it it be Greens or other minor socialist parties or whether the SDLP or SF will benefit?

  • Declan Doyle

    In the last relevant PR election PBP votes transferred mainly to Sinn Fein if my memory serves.

  • Colin Lamont

    If unionists turn out at the rate differential in 2014 the seat will be won, although no PUP candidate might not help matters. They had a good ‘get out the vote’ operation in the last council elections.

  • Declan Doyle

    But if PBP pull out enough new voters, their transfers will work against McCoubrey quite likely.

  • Msiegnaro

    Elaborate.

  • Msiegnaro

    The overall cause has to be more important than party politics. Yes I disagree with the DUP on those same issues, however WB needs a Unionist representative, there needs to be a statement of intent that even if the seat is not won by Unionism there is still a sizeable minority there that needs to be respected.

  • Ryan A

    Yeah but that requires the PBP transfers to align to the correct SF candidates in the required volume, some of whom are likely to be behind Attwood. He’ll (Attwood) also likely clean up the majority of the Green, Alliance and a smattering of UUP transfers which needs to be budgeted for. Let’s remember the SDLP voted against the budget and will be going with the line that it was SF who handed welfare back to the tories.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Elaborate”

    Well, I was referring to your “You might as well vote for Sinn Fein then.” comment.

    For years unionist voters would come out and vote for a unionist candidate in mid-Ulster even though there wasn’t a hope of returning a unionist MP.

    Even if they all voted SDLP it would be touch and go that SF wouldn’t get in but the SDLP a least have a shot.

    In which case voting for a unionist that didn’t have a chance was surely (to use your logic) ‘voting for SF’ as it practically guaranteed a SF victory?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Pretty much, at the heart of unionist politics is the idea of a covenant, a contract between two parties. In Scotland the idea of a covenant in political history is quite different.
    It was covenant politics that saw Salmond maintain a stance there would be no tuition fees, and made Miliband do some sort of pale imitation.

    This seems to have fallen out of the political culture in the island of Ireland, even among unionists (on pretty much everything else but the Union). The direct democracy that comes with the republic is noble, but where representative politics exist the integrity of our officials and their commitment to us that gave them our mandate is just as important.

  • Declan Doyle

    Well that of course depends on the area concerned within the constituency itself. Wherever Carroll is based you can bet he will clean up in that immediate area and most likely transfer most of his surplus to the local SF candidate, pushing them over the line. Attwood came in joint 6th position in the last assembly election along with Pat Sheahan. Even with Attwoods running mate votes at the time he might struggle to come in third place this time around. PBP only transferred 15% to SDLP last time out with almost 50% going to SF. It all depends on how well SF can get their vote out.

  • mjh

    That is certainly true. However you have to discount that effect by three factors:
    1) The proportion of those new voters who do not transfer,
    2) The quota is one seventh of the total vote – so it takes 7 new ‘extra’ voters to push the quota up by 1,
    3) If Carroll is elected the votes of those new voters will only be transferred at a fraction of their original value.

  • mjh

    Depends what you mean by “unionists best chance”, Granni.
    If you mean the candidate most likely to take a seat for the unionists – well, no. The DUP got many more votes on each occasion.

    If you mean that he represents the strand of unionism which would stand the better chance , if supported by the majority of unionists, of securing the Union – well, although I might agree with you, up until now the majority of unionist voters have not.

  • Granni Trixie

    Your thinking is probably on the ball. I still would not be surprised though if DUP do less well this time round due to the impact of PR time in charge. New leader could turn this round in next 5 years.

  • Msiegnaro

    Terrible strategy, why would one want to vote for a Nationalost party. The SDLP maybe sheep in sheep’s clothing but they are still sheep.

  • Declan Doyle

    The point is PBP voters are unlikely to favour Unionism for obvious reasons. Previous elections tell us that most of their votes transfer to anywher but unionism. only 60% of WB voters have turned out in most recent elections. Another 5% of new voters on top of that for PBP, affects the quota numerically and further damages McCoubrey chances.

  • Gopher

    Don’t see it that way I think here are now too many options for transfer and the SDLP will be the biggest loser in general and Attwood in particulair.

  • mjh

    Certainly if Carroll can grow the total turnout by 5% of the electorate that will throw all other calculations back into the mixing bowl. That would be an astonishing achievement.

  • mjh

    Actually we know nothing of how PBPA voters would transfer. In 2014 Carroll’s surplus came from the Alliance, Workers Party, SDLP and NI21 candidates who had been eliminated after the first count.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Well, it boils down to whom you prefer; SF or the SDLP? I prefer the SDLP over SF myself and as such I see all those votes for a unionist MP in mid-Ulster as a vote for SF.

  • Msiegnaro

    As a long term vision we need to represent more than anyone but Sinn Fein, Unionism needs to be more strategic, more positive in order to keep moving forward. While I respect your strategy I feel it is negative and insular.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Slightly more than a snowball’s chance in hell: it should be observed that the Catholic percentage of the population fell by nearly 4% in the period 2001-2011:-

    http://belfastmediagroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Screen-Shot-2013-05-21-at-14.29.37-15.54.432.png

    So it presumably fell by another 2% in the period between 2011 and now. However, the converse of this is that in each of the 17 other constituencies the Catholic percentage has risen. So if you think there is a correlation between stated religion and voting intentions, we should concede that a Nationalist loss (SF or SDLP) is possible in West Belfast, but this means a Nationalist gain is possible in some of the other 17 constituencies.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Individualism and Diversity are going to increase exponentially no matter who or what people vote for or fight for. Basically, I believe that it takes more work to maintain the consent we have for what already exists, not just thinking all additional work we do will lead to reform.

    Work needs to be done ensuring we secure the networks that maintain what we have and then we need to go that extra mile to improve it. Historic Trust cannot be taken for granted as some sort of currency that maintains its constancy throughout generations.

    Trust decays over time if the source of that trust is not maintained.

    Quite often nationalism gives people the cosy comfort blank of a “we” that have a group think of having a flag to follow, but there is often thousands of different nations within a nation. The big difference between a corporation and a nation, is that a corporation has an indisputable purpose on which to consolidate around, while nations are effectively a broad open market.

  • Declan Doyle

    If you compare the 2010 and 2015 Westminster election results. There was 3000 more votes cast in 2015. SF lost 3,700. SDLP lost 1,800. All others combined increased by 600 votes. PBP took 6,800 votes in 2015 so it looks like Carroll himself pulled in about 1200 new voters.

  • Ryan A

    Fine with me as someone who wouldn’t mind seeing Alliance overtake the on seat count, but I’m confident Alex should retain the seat. I think if he loses it will land with the DUP.

  • Thomas Barber

    Where did your figures come from Paddy presumably from the census or the voter register anyhows not too many people from West Belfast fills those forms in and I know lots and lots of people just like myself who dont bother registering to vote in British elections but im sure thats open to change depending on whats up for grabs, like a referendum on Irish unity.

  • Paddy Reilly

    It says at the top: Census 2001 and 2011.

    Compare the figures with the 2011 results and you will see how remarkably accurate it is.

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