#GE15: Will religion (or no religion) help decide the East Belfast race?

Belfast East is expected to be one of the most hotly contested seats in the upcoming General Election next May, but actually what are the chances that Naomi Long will be able to hold on to her seat after snatching it off Peter Robinson in 2010?

The DUP conference has just passed and anyone who tuned in could be forgiven for thinking that they plan to pummel an almighty amount of resources into taking back east Belfast from Naomi Long, it is that personal. 

How likely is it though that the DUP will be able to regain east Belfast?

By looking at data from the 2010 General Election we can see that there is a strong relationship between those who hold no religion and vote Alliance. There is one major outlier however, and that is in the constituency Belfast East.

According to our model we can see that the Alliance Party won 22% more than what we would have expected them to. In 2010 Alliance received 37.2% of the vote share in Belfast East whereas we only would have expected them to receive about 15.6%.

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Unless there is another major upset we could quite fairly assume then that it’s likely that the DUP will re-gain Belfast East… but unionism’s electoral strategy is broken.

Many a unionist predicated that after the Alliance Party’s role in removing the Union Flag permanently from Belfast City Hall that they would be consigned to the electoral history books of Belfast. We know that this didn’t quite materialise in the end though.

Overall in Belfast, Alliance managed to secure five council seats and looking specifically at how the Alliance Party faired in the east of the city we see that their number of first preference votes did decrease, although it was only by 396. Marie Hendron who was the party’s group leader on the council did lose her seat but this was because the Alliance Party ran another candidate alongside Marie – David Armitage who subsequently was elected.

The mudslinging approach to combating the Alliance Party electorally didn’t work. But be under no illusion that the DUP won’t change their tactics, especially not now that the TUV managed to significantly increase their support base in the local council elections, in fact the battle has begun already – Peter Robinson fired the starting gun at the DUP conference on Friday when her referred to the Alliance Party as:

“the pro-Union opposition to the flag lowering, parade stopping, gay marriage supporting, pro water charging, holier than thou Alliance Party”

I don’t know when, or if there ever was a time when unionism was confident in itself and didn’t feel the need to shout so loudly but say so little. I’m not naive enough to think that electoral politics is all rainbows and butterflies, abrasiveness is part and parcel of the political discourse, of course it is.

The reality though is that east Belfast won’t simply be won back by a demonization campaign towards the Alliance Party. 

If I was asked to call who will win Belfast East next year I’m not sure how confident I would be in giving you an answer.

At the minute I’ll hedge my bets on the Alliance Party retaining their seat, 2010 may have been served with a healthy portion of luck but I think they might just do it again.

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  • Morpheus

    Wow wow wow, sweet child o’mine! I think this bit needs a re-word Paul:

    “Many a unionist predicted that after the Alliance Party’s role in removing the Union Flag permanently from Belfast City Hall that they would be consigned to the electoral history books of Belfast.”

    How about:

    “Many a unionist predicted that after the Alliance Party got SF/SDLP to change from their position of neutrality on council buildings to the same policy used by the majority of other UK councils, endorsed by the College of Arms and in keeping with legal advice from Senior Counsel and advice from The Equality Commission that they would be consigned to the electoral history books of Belfast.”

    Fascinating read mind, but judging from the panto at the weekend I think the DUP will try every trick in the book to get East Belfast back – and we have seen just how dirty their tricks can be. Even though Gavin Robinson is far from the worst the DUP has to offer I think the people of East Belfast will see right through the DUP and keep Naomi Long.


  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Interesting viewpoint. As a Fundamentalist Atheist I’m intrigued by the suggestion that people based on their faith. It doesn’t surprise me that stereotypically free presbyterians have their party which of course would be a sizable portion of the East Belfast constituency, but I would be surprised if that fact stretched outwards to those of other faiths or in fact no faith at all. I would have no problem voting for someone of any faith *as long as that faith is their own and doesn’t influence the job they do or the decisions they make*. And idealistically perhaps, I feel that is a common enough held view…again with another big asterisk next to the free presybterian cabal

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    it is only a matter of time before the DUP start spreading the rumour that judas iscariot was a ginger….

  • Kemple End

    I’m of the opinion that for every voter alienated by the Alliance role in the Union Flag pantomime (or, to be specific, the way their role was ramped/portrayed up by unionism/loyalism), there will be at least one voter appealed to their politics and response to what went on. The problem being is that this could play out across the province, not purely within East Belfast – where I think the Unionist parties (particularly the DUP) will likely find the most success in mobilising previous non-voting unionists.

  • Morpheus

    On a bar theme, did you know he ran the first off-license in the Bible?

    Juda’s Carry-out

    [Judas Iscariot, Juda’s Carry-out….no? Anyone?

    I’ll get m’coat]

  • carl marks

    your coat left without you! 😉

  • Morpheus

    Ouch 🙂

  • Very naive to suggest that religious non=Free Ps aren’t influenced by their beliefs when voting. In sliding socially liberal (and not even socially liberal by English standards) Alliance turned off some or even many Christians who don’t agree with gay marriage or the consultation on abortion. Will it win them greater support in this election? Well I would suggest that anyone who voted before would have voted Alliance anyway and I don’t think it’s realistic to predict a huge flow of non-voters to the polls. It’s one more issue to throw into the melting pot.

  • aor26

    Will people in Short Strand vote for Naomi ?

  • Kemple End

    Surely not with Niall running?

    Better still – where other Unionist parties might make way for DUP; could SDLP do the same and encourage a vote for Alliance?

  • Turgon

    It seems to be stretching it a bit to suggest that religion as opposed to ethnicity has much to do with this particular constituency. You seem to misunderstand correlation and causation

    By all means blog on Alliance’s chances of holding East Belfast but you seem to be misunderstanding the nature of correlation and are dangerously close to suggesting that correlation is causation.

    You are of course trying to suggest that there is an association between people who refuse to identify as Protestant or Roman Catholic and voting Alliance. That may well be correct but you have chosen a particularly poor example to achieve this. Furthermore this again is an association of factors and does not imply causation.

    In reality the problems Peter Robinson had prior to the last Westminster elections, the popular local candidate Alliance had (in Long) and the woeful candidate the Conservatives / Ulster Unionists New Force / farce (I enjoyed getting to type that again) had in Trevor Ringland were the causes.

    Incidentally Naomi Long makes much of her membership of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church so it is unlikely to be on the basis of no religion that she will pick up votes. It is worth noting that Bloomfield church ran a campaign against homosexual marriage (I believe it had a petition) so she might lose a few votes because of the Alliance position on homosexual marriage.

  • jeep55

    At the council elections in May people in Short Strand voted overwhelmingly for Niall O’D. In fact under the new Titanic boundaries (as compared with the old Pottinger) it was widely expected that SF would lose their seat. They didn’t by virtue of a 75% turn-out whereas the rest of Titanic was below 50%. Had SF lost, Marie Hendron might have held her seat and made it two for Alliance – she was certainly the last candidate standing but not elected. But a Westminster election might encourage some tactical voting – though SF tactical voting is a hard call. Regarding SDLP – there are not many SDLP votes in East Belfast – and what there are will almost certainly vote tactically for Naomi.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    not all alliance voted for abortion consultation, Chris Lyttle for one I believe didn’t. Is it expecting a bit much to hope that there will be some respect shown for alliance party voting on conscience rather than on policy line

  • Bryan Magee

    I recon it will go to the DUP.

    The big no religion places are essentially urban.

    I winder who the UUP will put up.?

  • mjh

    That’s a very interesting correlation you have highlighted, Paul.

    In a census, identification with a religion for many people is more to do with declaring the community grouping with which they identify rather than being an expression of their spirituality. Indeed based on measures of falling active participation in religious activities, this may now be the case for the majority of respondents.

    It is probably not surprising that constituencies with a higher proportion of people who do not identify themselves in this way might also contain a higher proportion of people who would consider voting for parties or individuals not associated with one or other of the religious/community groupings.

    You highlight the level of correlation between No Religion and the Alliance vote,
    but rightly do not claim cause and effect. Indeed your illuminating graph
    demonstrates that there must be other equally important factors at work. In
    half the constituencies the Alliance vote is below the level of No Religion,
    and in most of the rest – including spectacularly East Belfast, the Alliance
    vote is higher than the level of No Religion.

    It would be interesting to see if the level of correlation holds true in previous
    recent elections at Assembly and Council level. Also to look back historically,
    to see how far back into the past it would hold true. In other words is it true
    correlation or merely a co-incidence.

  • Bryan Magee

    Yes the combination of good candidate and large unionist vote makes it likely DUP can gain.

    SDLP people might vote tactically to support Long but they aren’t enough

  • aor26

    I would expect them to vote for Niall in the council elections. To be honest I imagine most will still vote sinn fein in the Westminster which is a wasted vote really because we all know they have not a hope in hell. That ghetto mentality of a lot of Sinn Fein voters will likely hold out – the feeling that all the other parties hate us and we don’t owe them anything. It will be interesting to see if Naomi makes any subtle overtures to the people in Short Strand. Overt overtures are a non-starter from the small u Unionist but if she could be clever she could get a message through to enough of them that they may actually do the unthinkable and not vote for everybody’s favourite gaelgoir

  • John Gorman

    The SDLP is down to its last couple of hundred votes here, it is safe to say that most SDLP supporters are already voting for Alliance in East Belfast.

  • Bryan Magee

    Is it really fair to say that Naoim — who is excellent — makes a lot of being a member of bpc? It’s the first I heard of her membership.

  • Turgon

    Check her website.

  • Ernekid

    I think Long may hold the seat, she’s a strong incumbent, she’ll have tactical votes and the fleggers aren’t likely to actually likely to turn out and vote for the DUP. The cynicism of the DUP will be fully revealed in East Belfast.

    As for religion and politics that’s another matter entirely, personally I’m totally irreligious and it doesnt effect my politics at all. I feel that there’s a tendency to overstate the correlation between religious observance and political persuasion

  • Bryan Magee

    I suspect that Gavin Robinson will take this one. A combo of a strong DUP voter base, a strong desire to win it back, and a great candidate will shine through.

  • Respect is fine but that doesn’t equate necessarily to electoral success. In this case I don’t predict that Alliance’s will improve their chances as they won’t gain many extra votes from last time out by being more liberal and it will cost them votes to the DUP.

  • DUP or Alliance, neither as both have proven themselves to be fckn useless!

    I predict a UKIP gain, UKIP isn’t about your church or religion, it’s non sectarian.

    East Belfast knows how to lump votes on to a good thing, a winner, this time round they will see UKIP as a good thing, in with a chance of winning, gone are the days of having useless people representing East Belfast.

  • The recent comments by Gerry Adams may well have gone a long way to seal a DUP win in East. It is now a lot easier to make the case for Unionist unity which should keep voters who would consider TUV, PUP, UKIP onside. The argument of Alliance being “nice” is fine, re: conscience and flag sympathy, but is it really changing who people vote for? Or just preaching to the converted?
    It would be useful to explain the other anomaly as well to give the full picture.

  • Many a unionist predicted that after the Alliance Party got SF/SDLP to change from their position of neutrality on council buildings to the same policy used by the majority of other UK councils, endorsed by the College of Arms and in keeping with legal advice from Senior Counsel and advice from The Equality Commission

    Mate, you are off your fckn rocker!

  • 🙂

  • I believe UKIP can beat the DUP, but would need the TUV not to stand and a high quality liberal UUP candidate to contend in order to bleed votes away from the Alliance. The PUP in this context should not stand too small a party and if UKIP could beat the DUP this would diminish DUP resources and money which should be of benefit to the PUP in the long run. So think smart. I believe UKIP and TUV will come to a deal, just hope silly Mike Nesbitt doesn’t do a pact in east Belfast, mad Mike, we need Mike to field a nice posh Ringland character. Leave the DUP to UKIP. (Especially in context of expenses scandal up in Stormont as well).

  • mac tire

    John “I wouldnt vote “against” anything. I am a firm believer in “voting” for. I lived in Fermanagh-South Tyrone briefly and didnt vote for Bobby Sands.”

    So John, you vote for but against? I read that sentence and then gave up. Sorry.

  • Gaygael

    Sorry but can you give us some re singing for this statement please?

    You predict a UKIP gain. Do you even understand NI politics? Read them, follow them, base this on any factual information? Seriously?

  • tmitch57

    Actually Iscariot is a corruption of the Hebrew Ish keriot or man of the towns. So Judas Iscariot literally means “urban Jew.”

    So it would be very fitting if the Duppers claimed that the Alliance candidate or Alliance voter is a Judas Iscariot.

  • tmitch57

    “The special circumstances of 2010 in East Belfast made that possible.
    I think Alliance cant win.”

    It should be remembered that back in 1979 when Peter Robinson first won East Belfast he beat Alliance leader Oliver Napier by only a few hundred votes. There seems to be a solid Alliance constituency in East Belfast. This time around the DUP candidate won’t be an incumbent going up against an incumbent. Much will depend on how Catholics in the constituency and UUP supporters vote. If Alliance can secure a pact with the UUP by giving away a couple of long-shot seats elsewhere in the province in exchange for the UUP not running a candidate and instructing its members to vote for Alliance they would have a good shot at retaining the seat. It would all depend at who Nesbitt regards as the greater threat to his party in the short term: Alliance or the DUP.

  • John Gorman

    Quite clearly the UUP have no interest in a pact with Alliance. All the talk and fear is Belfast not being represented by a Unionist. One small problem May isnt that far away tick tock, any Unity deals need to be sorted fairly soon. Expect no deal to be done and the UUP and DUP both using it to bash the other party

  • John Gorman

    No chance, UKIP at best would poll 1500 votes more likely around 1000 and thats only if the TUV step aside

  • Morpheus

    And you reach that conclusion using Flegger logic or actual logic and rational thought?

  • Morpheus

    Honestly – right hand up to God – have you even read the transcript?

    It makes this look kinda silly really


  • delphindelphin

    The few words on NL’s web site about BPC – depends how you define ”makes much of her membership” I suppose.
    ”Naomi lives with her husband Michael in East Belfast. They are both active members of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church.”

  • John Gorman

    I think Alliance have a good chance in holding EB and it will be close but the DUP are still favourites. As for SB I might be wrong but isnt Bradshaw lined up for 2015. If Lo was picked then yes a lot of pale green votes would have gone to her but I cant see Bradshaw getting those votes especially when she stood in 2010 as a Unionist. I have to disagree with you on the tactical voting, fair enough if you think all the rest are equally poor but I think most people would agree that in most constituencies they will have a less bad option. Just ask the tactical Unionist voters in Foyle and South Down.

  • Bryan Magee

    I think its good to be open about things: if you are an active member of a church, state it. Enough people care about this. There are lots of other things about her on her site so it does not seem she is giving the membership undue prominence.

    Naomi long is an excellent public representative.

  • delphindelphin


  • Morpheus

    Darn tootin’

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Now look! Regarding the inevitable appointment of Gavin in East Belfast (why am I reminded of the mention of George II at the start of Pope’s “Dunciad” here?), the country in general and Stormont in particular find themselves incressingly strapped for cash nowadays. These elections are expensive and seriously interfere with shopping and everyday life in general. Is it not about time that we nominated wise moderate and objective families such as the Robinsons to hold seats in perpetuity at Stormont, as used to happen before the troubles? And to ensure that they have the right to nominate a sucessor from, say their wider family so that anyone without issue could nominate a nephew or niece? It would save a wack of public money in the short term and we’d end up pretty much in the same position that we usually do with these troublesome elections.

  • Granni Trixie

    As we know,people vote for various reasons – tradition in families, identification with a party or for an individual and in this case it is clear that Naomi has quite a personal following. This extends throughout NI. Infact when canvassing in European election last year in SB many people voluntarily brought up on the doorsteps how much they admired her (this in the context of intimidation of EB office and fallout from “those leafltets”).
    On the question of ‘is identification with being a church goer a help or a hinderence’ in capturing votes, I would say that the most important thing in terms of what would appeal to voters is that the candidate (in this case Naomi) is true to herself. I also observe that both she and DF in internal Alliance debates often bring to the table a perspective as believers, different to that of say humanist or like myself who tend to be secular in orientation). You could also say from her record that Naomi demonstrates that it is possible to be loyal to a church whilst adopting a live and let live attitude.
    I think however that in most peoples eyes Naomis usp is that she is a clever, local women who offers something positive – that she is a church goer and believer is but one element in a much more complex identity.

  • My argument is that it’s more or less irrelevant what Alliance do as last time they maxed out their vote in East Belfast. What is going to decide it is whether the DUP can take back votes from those upset about flags or they go to other Unionists. There aren’t lots more progressives ready to vote Alliance who won’t have done so last time out anyway.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    A think a lot will hinge on the TUV vote in this area which has grown quite significantly since the last Westminster elections where they fielded a rather poor candidate in East Belfast. The TUV will certainly be looking to have a free run in a constituency if they are to pull aside here.

  • Morpheus

    That same story has been rattled off many, many times before yet here they are. The were supposed to be run out of Belfast not too long ago and demonstrably that was an epic fail.

    Naomi Long is an incredibly strong candidate and there’s no doubt it will be difficult contest but I wouldn’t simply write off her chances. The people of East Belfast are smart, they won’t simply fall for ‘put a sash on it and they will vote for it’

  • Morpheus

    John, if SF were serious about increasing the number of pro-Agreement representatives at Westminster don’t you think they should step aside for pro-agreement representatives who will take their seats in all constituencies?

    Personally I would love to see an agreed candidate in East L’Derry to try to curry GC’s yoghurt by taking at least 1 of his salaries away

  • I was not suggesting it will be a landslide, nor that Alliance will disappear. Long won by 1500 votes last time out. Certainly Alliance will lose votes to Unionism. In my opinion there won’t be many votes going to Alliance next year that weren’t there before. So the question is how many Unionist votes does Long lose and whether the Unionist vote is split.

  • Morpheus

    An SDLP member who is anti-GFA? I bet John Hume loves you 🙂

    Any chance your dissatisfaction stems from big chunks of the GFA not being implemented as they should have been?

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  • Bryan Magee

    Watching her contributions in Westminster she is at her best when she is on the NI Affairs committee where she asks the sharpest questions.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Many a unionist predicated that after the Alliance Party’s role in removing the Union Flag permanently from Belfast City Hall

    13 days is not “permanently removed”.

    I think Naomi is in with a good chance. I think she will at least retain the 37% of the vote she won at the last Westminster election, as an absolute bottom line. It’s also likely that nationalist voters will lend their vote to Naomi.

    What comes after that depends largely Ulster Unionist voters. Everyone knows that in East Belfast there really are only two candidates with a chance of winning. The 7000 UUP voters in 2010 who supported the other liberal constructivist candidate, Trevor Ringland, may well be turned off by the DUP’s message on marriage equality, abortion and Muslims.

    It’s going to be pretty tight.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Alliance turned off some or even many Christians who don’t agree with gay marriage or the consultation on abortion.

    Alliance’s strong (strongest ever I think ?) European election result was won in 2014 by a pro-choice, pro-marriage equality female candidate.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The only seat the TUV would have a chance of winning would be North Antrim, and the only candidate with a chance of winning would be Jim Allister. He may well challenge Ian Paisley Jnr, and if he does, Paisley is likely to see a reduction in his majority. If Allister wins, he’s stuck over in London where he is wasted and where he cannot expertly expose the machinations of powersharing here.

    My prediction is that the TUV will not run in east belfast.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I predict a UKIP gain

    East Belfast has a majority liberal Protestant middle class vote – it has always been one of Alliance’s strongest seats. Robinson even at his height never had an outright majority. They won’t go for UKIP or anything like it.

  • Yes it was their best ever, by quite a margin but it doesn’t mean my statement is incorrect. I can’t evidence numbers hence why I hedged on that but it is certainly the case. Why would there be progressive voters who wouldn’t vote for Long last time but who would this time? That’s why Alliance has maxed its vote and why the Unionist stick or split is so significant.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Every UUP voters knows that their candidate cannot win and that it is a choice between Long and Robinson. Logically, it therefore does not matter if there is a pact.

    If the voters think that they need to stop Alliance at all costs, they’ll vote DUP.

    If the voters think that they need to stop the DUP at all costs, they’ll vote Alliance.

    I am sure that a pact will have some effect, but probably not much.

    The logic is the same for Short Strand nationalists, and for Green supporters. They know that there is a choice between Long and Robinson. Which of the two would they prefer ? I think we know the answer to that one.

    The other problem for the DUP is they have several fish to fry. Alliance are likely to only be seriously targetting one Westminster seat. The DUP have several seats they need to retain, and many of them are at risk. Top of that list is the deputy leader’s seat in North Belfast. If they put their resources into regaining East, and win, won’t it look bad if their deputy leader ends up retiring if Gerry Kelly nicks his seat from under their nose ? How will that go down at Camp Twaddell ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’d love to see Alliance taking South but I don’t see it. A UUP endorsement would be poisonous in a majority nationalist constituency.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Why would there be progressive voters who wouldn’t vote for Long last time but who would this time?

    Last time, as far as the public was concerned, it was a three horse race with the bookies offering 100/1 on Naomi (fortunately I got a few quid in!).

    The unionist commentators (Newton Emerson in particular, I recall) said that only Ringland had a chance of beating Robinson. Alliance’s strategists had to go to a lot of effort to spin it as a two horse race.

    Now it is clearly a two horse race which no UUP candidate can win. That is the key difference.

  • Fair point although I don’t think the UUP will disappear, unless of course they go in for a pact. They did reasonably well in EB and have had quite consistent support of 7000-10000 in Westminster elections. There’s a lot in the mix in East.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Look at what happened to the Lib Dems in Rochester & Stroud, totally wiped out. Part of that may reflect dissatisfaction with the government, but it’s also likely that a lot of them tactically voted Tory in a last-ditch attempt to try to stop UKIP from taking the seat.

    When the third party’s voters know that it’s a tight race between two very different candidates, and that their candidate cannot win they are much more likely to vote tactically.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The claim “Naomi Long makes much of her membership of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church” implies that Naomi spends all day talking about her church and all the stuff she does there. It’s not justified by one sentence in her biography saying that she is active there.

  • Practically_Family

    The family crystal ball says DUP, comfortably.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It may seem unfathamable but some atheists will vote for Gavin Robinson.

  • Practically_Family

    On the flip side many people seemed to be surprised that you voted for a party based on their policies.

    There’s nowt so queer as folk.

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