I had an interesting conversation recently with the Sinn Fein candidate for Castlereagh South, Nuala Toman.
Being honest, I was hoping for an insight into Sinn Fein strategy for the forthcoming elections and, perhaps, a snappy line that I might use as a headline for this article to engage readers.
What I got was a smart, friendly, local political candidate who surprised me with her knowledge, intelligence and experience, and disarmed me somewhat with her candour and focus on the constituency she is standing in.
Castlereagh South is what may be described as a mixed constituency. Extending from Carryduff in the eastern part through Moneyreagh and taking in Cairnshill to the north, the SDLP and Alliance have done well here while Sinn Fein have performed poorly in recent elections.
The 2011 Council elections provided us with the following results in this constituency:
DUP (36.5%), 2 Seats
SDLP: (22.6%), 1 seat
Alliance: (19.6%), 1 seat
UUP: (12.0%), 1 seat
A Demographic breakdown of the electorate based on the 2011 Census results is approximately 48% nationalist and 52% unionist.
Nuala has a formidable background. She has a solid academic background in Universities in Glasgow and QUB specializing in educational development, she has worked in Gerry Adams office for Sinn Fein and has held a number of impressive posts on various voluntary bodies.
I was particularly interested in meeting Nuala because of my own interest in marginal constituencies and the demographic changes occurring rapidly in Belfast.
Our meeting in the Sinn Fein Office on the Falls Road was strangely informal. Perhaps I expected a minder or an observer. Perhaps that’s me.
We kicked off with a look at the figures. I know mine and she knew hers.
I asked her about the two key aspects of her constituency, maximizing her vote and growing it.
She was very clear that the strategy within the party was to canvass areas that had never been canvassed before.
The response was surprising according to Nuala. She had expected some hostility but experienced engagement. When pressed, she insisted this included what would have been previously perceived as exclusively Unionist areas.
I moved the conversation on, as you do, to the “bread and butter” issues.
Nuala has an admirable list of local issues which she is prioritizing for her campaign including transport, infrastructure, local access issues, housing development and local employment opportunities.
All well and good but what are her chances?
In Faha’s analysis over on my own site the combined nationalist vote in Castlereagh South should be in excess of 40%. I asked how she anticipated maximizing that vote and growing it.
She emphasised the importance of being accessible and engaging with all parts of the community. I then touched on the currently politically topical aspect of ethnic minorities.
This part of Ireland has a long history of immigrant minorities. The Celts, the Normans, the Huguenots, Scots planters, the Anglo aristocracy for example.
I asked if, given the recent racially motivated incidents in Belfast, Sinn Fein was getting any feedback from these communities. Nuala was interestingly reluctant to comment. Her concern was that by making a comment she may put at risk people in mixed or predominantly loyalist areas.
When pressed on the issue she responded that “On the South Belfast DPCSP I have actually ensured Hate Crime is a priority issue and been key to developing a strategy to tackle hate crime.”
Regarding the wider new Council area of Lisburn and Castlereagh, Fahas summary concludes:
“Similar to Mid and East Antrim, this will be a DUP dominated council. Unlike Mid and East Antrim, there is a rapid growth of the Catholic population in most of the new council. It was over 5% in the Lisburn area (the Lagan Valley constituency increase from 13% to over 18%) and also 5% in the Castlereagh area.
Even in the 2014 election, if nationalist turnout equaled unionist turnout, there would be a SDLP seat in Lisburn South and a SF seat in Killultagh. Both of these would be at the expense of the DUP. There would still be 25 DUP and UUP councilors. In another 15 or 20 years there could be additional nationalist councilors in Lisburn North, South, Downshire East and West and Castlereagh South ( possibly Alliance here instead).
This may not be a unionist dominated council in 15 to 20 years”
The question as to whether Sinn Fein will make a breakthrough in Castlereagh South will, of course, be answered on May 22nd. I would suggest that if they do, it may be at the expense of the SDLP and Alliance.