#AE16 #South Belfast: Most competitive and probably the hardest to call…

Candidates: [SDLP] Claire Hanna, Fearghal McKinney; [DUP] Emma Little Pengelly, Christopher Stalford; [Alliance] Paula Bradshaw, Duncan Morrow; [] [Sinn Fein] Máirtín Ó Muilleoir; [UUP] Rodney McCune; [Greens] Clare Bailey; [UKIP] Bob Stoker; [TUV] John Andrew Hiddleston; [PUP] Ian Shanks; [Independent] Ruth Patterson; [NI Conservatives] Ben Manton; [Workers Party] Lily Kerr; [South Belfast Unionists] Billy Dickson [NIRC] Brigitte ‘Gitty’ Anton; [Cross-Community Labour Alternative] Sean Burns.

NI’s third largest constituency South Belfast sprawls from M1 right out to Carryduff. 44.0% of its population were brought up Catholic, smidgens ahead of those brought up as Protestant at 43.7% (a drop of 8.9%), with those of none 9.5%, and other 2.8% making the balance.

This the toughest constituency to call. As Sam McBride notes this morning, “not one of the 18 candidates standing for election was elected as an MLA five years ago”.

Further fuel is added to this raw uncertainty when you look at the 2011 figures and those since. Nicholas Whyte’s extrapolations suggests three parties on neck and neck of around 19%/20% in the council equivalents in 2014: SDLP, DUP, and Alliance.

With Sinn Fein and the UUP running just one candidate each here, and with all three parties pitching for two seats each: one or more of them are going to be fallers. Only the single Sinn Fein candidate Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is guaranteed to win a seat.

It’s hard to extrapolate from last year’s Westminster election, but in many ways the voters simply reverted to Assembly patterns. The sitting MP and then leader of the SDLP Alasdair McDonnell was elected on a hard-core SDLP vote in a massively split field.

Even though McDonnell was elected with the lowest number of votes of any MP anywhere last year, if the SDLP can squeeze anything like 9,560 (24.5%) first preference votes then you’d have to say that of the three punting for a second seat they’d have to be favourites.

The south Belfast SDLP is, like the party’s other constituency associations who managed to hold on to their MP representation, is the exception that proves the general rule of decline in the party’s fortunes. The two machines from two ends of the Catholic universe.

Enmity has dampened somewhat with the departure of McDonnell, but the competition remains. Hanna’s profile is stronger than her predecessor Conall McDevitt who only just split a balanced DUP ticket to take the fifth seat, possibly ahead of Fearghal McKinney.

Next likely in line for two is the DUP. Like Sam McBride I fancy Alderman Christopher Stalford to come in ahead of Emma Little Pengelly, despite the fact that with a name change she is will now appear further up the ballot.

Despite her controversial parachute drop from the last days of Peter Robinson’s OFMdFM, running an intelligent young Unionist woman here is a smart choice in an election when their main unionist rivals need to transition from an old stager to a younger model.

The prospective meat in any DUP sandwich is Rodney McCune who has a long and dedicated record of street-fighting for a range of UUP seats, and unfortunately not winning them. An earlier co-option here would have helped him greatly in what could be a very tight squeeze.

McCune is aided by the fact that there’s only one of him. Too low a balance in the DUP ticket or too much of an imbalance might let McCune through the gap and home.  But this is an area of long decline for the party, and in Paula Bradshaw he faces an Alliance challenge from a former UU candidate.

His main hope of squeezing through is staying to the bitter end and hoping he can stay ahead of other candidates. Ruth Patterson’s transfers (few of which will be going to the DUP) may come to him and if he can stay ahead of Duncan Morrow he has a chance of lifting that final sixth seat.

Which brings me to that Alliance duo. There’s very little downside here for Alliance. They had one seat going into this election and they will certainly emerge with one and possibly two. It’s their most likely gain. However, given the competition elsewhere getting a second won’t be easy.

The SDLP’s Claire Hanna is the most stand out candidate in the race, and given her socially liberal views she’s far more likely to compete with the Alliance for first preferences. Indeed she may need every one since those views have not endeared her to more conservative Catholic opinion in South.

Morrow has a slightly higher cut of the constituency, but Bradshaw’s on the ground community work in working class loyalist areas may get her some grip they would otherwise struggle for. The other pressure is from Green candidate Clare Bailey who took a cool 2,238 out of last years Westminster.

Predictions: 2 SDLP; 2DUP; 1 SF; 1 Alliance.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

donate to keep slugger lit