Election: Is North Belfast in play?

There has been a considerable amount of talk in recent days about North Belfast being elevated to a ‘one to watch’ constituency. Both Irish News editor, Noel Doran, and UTV’s Ken Reid made reference to it following UTV’s Leaders Debate Thursday night, and Jim Fitzpatrick has followed that up with more speculation in his preview of Sunday’s Politics Show programme. Here’s Sammy Morse’s 2007 preview of the constituency (pre-boundary changes, which, according to Nick Whyte’s Northern Ireland elections site have marginally increased the overall number of catholics in the constituency.)

Below I’ve included Jim Gibney’s piece in Thursday’s Irish News (with kind permission from the writer) which, unsurprisingly, presents an optimistic interpretation of how things stand for Sinn Fein’s candidate as election day approaches. The numbers would suggest Kelly requires two mini miracles to pull this one off. Firstly, he’ll need to persuade the solid SDLP voter  in the Castle and Glengormley areas to make the leap to Sinn Fein; no mean feat when the SDLP’s continuing dominance at a local government level in these areas is taken into consideration. Secondly, he’ll need the much speculated- though yet to be proven- voter disaffection with the DUP to translate into both voter apathy and a significant hemorrhaging of support from Dodds to Cobain.

Whatever the outcome, it would appear that, come 2015, Belfast will have two constituencies where the electoral contest will not be simply an in-house affair, Orange or Green.

The withdrawal of Sinn Féin from South Belfast almost certainly guarantees the seat for the SDLP’s Alasdair Mc Donnell, regardless of the posturing of Margaret Ritchie.

The Sinn Féin decision, aimed at maximizing nationalist representation, will have a ripple effect across other constituencies, the goodwill gesture encouraging nationalists to use their votes tactically.

The outworking of the peace process has caused deep differences within unionism, even though unionists have managed to agree a pact in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Lady Sylvia Hermon has been given a clear run by the DUP in North Down and the TUV has stood aside in some constituencies.

Initial unionist smugness that this pact, and the intervention of Ferghal Mc Kinney would split the nationalist vote and virtually guarantee the election of Rodney Connor, has turned to dismay.

The poor performance by Mc Kinney in a television debate last Sunday, all fluff and no substance, on its own significantly damaged his credibility. But the actual statistics present an even more powerful argument. Michelle Gildernew outpolls the SDLP by 11,400 votes, has been a great Minister for Agriculture and a very active abstentionist MP.

Clearly, she is the only nationalist candidate who can win.

If Sinn Fein’s South Belfast gesture does encourage tactical voting, then nationalists could, astonishingly take three of Belfast’s four seats!

The North Belfast contest has been ‘under the radar’, so to speak, and could cause a major upset to the DUP and unionism. Has any of our political correspondents had a real look at this battle and at how vulnerable is the DUP?

There, the Sinn Féin vote has been on a relentless rise and the party has put every man, woman and eighteen-year-old on the electoral rolls and registered every overseas student and sick person for a postal or proxy vote.

The candidate, one of two Sinn Féin MLAs for the area (the SDLP has just one), is Gerry Kelly who sits on the executive, advising Martin Mc Guinness. His recent television debate with Ferghal Mc Kinney demonstrated a superior grasp of detail on policy and policy implementation.

In the 2007 Assembly elections in North Belfast Sinn Féin was 5000 votes in front of the SDLP and Gerry Kelly was elected on the first count, his nearest nationalist rival Alban Maginnis, on the ninth count.

If you are a gambler, put your money on Kelly as the taking of this seat could well be the story of the election!

The party leaders of Sinn Féin and the DUP are defending their seats in the West and East of Belfast, Gerry Adams more assuredly than Peter Robinson, if the blogs and twitters are to be believed.

UUP leader Reg Empey’s foray into South Antrim will decide Reg’s future. Margraet Ritchie is hoping to inherit the mantle of Eddie Mc Grady in South Down, and TUV leader Jim Allister is out to scuttle the DUP’s involvement in power-sharing if he can seize North Antrim which has been held by a Paisley called Ian since 1970.

Sinn Féin is the preferred party of a majority of nationalists, the DUP of a majority of the unionist people. It is healthy to politics that no party has a monopoly and that there are balances and checks. But it would be naïve to think the ‘numbers game’ is unimportant.

If, as a result of vote-splitting or diffused voting, a disproportionate number of unionist MPs are elected you can be sure that this will be flaunted to demoralize the nationalist people.

To this day, we are still redressing the injustices of partition. The state we currently live in is certainly not the ‘Northern Ireland’ state of 1921 or 1969 which humiliated and tried to crush us.

Today, nationalists own this state with all its flaws, have more power than they ever and are entitled to run every aspect of government. Some unionists cannot cope with the centrality of nationalist and republican involvement.

I can understand their suspicion because, to be frank, as a republican, I view these political structures as being temporary, subject to change and in transition.

However, as a political activist, I respect elections, which democratically empower the young, the old, men and women, opponents, cynics and dissidents, as equals.