On Wednesday night the DUP’s newly minted candidate for South Belfast launched his campaign to become the new MP for South Belfast. In the middle of all hustle and bustle of the Four Winds I caught up with the candidate, Junior Minister, Jonathan Bell.
To start with I wanted to know why the DUP thought that South Belfast was so ripe for change?
Bell told me that when you look at the last local election results it is clear that the DUP are in fact the largest party in South Belfast. He believes that people are looking for a more active voice in Westminster to implement a fresh and innovative approach the constituency. For Bell, South Belfast really needs to be “put on the map” and he believes that he can do that.
As he spoke about the constituency, I posed the question to him about why was the MLA for Strangford running for South Belfast?
The DUP Junior Minister points out that the areas of South Belfast used to be in his constituency, so he does have some experience in representing the area. However, he told me that from the DUPs point of view there was a need to have a recognisable face running for the party in this constituency. Bell does not promise that he can deliver everything, but he says he will always give 100 per cent of his effort to securing the best for the South Belfast constituency.
When the First Minister spoke at the campaign launch he pointed out that the DUP were the largest party in South Belfast, with the party ahead surely this race is about maintaining the DUP lead to win?
Bell believes that whilst the DUP on the numbers are ahead, he perceives this as an uphill battle for the party. But, he promises a campaign “like we have never seen” in South Belfast before from the DUP as he pledges to knock on thousands of doors and from now until election day he pledges that his team will be in every area and will be “on the ground” every evening in the constituency.
I wondered why he felt compelled to take on McDonnell. Did he feel that he has done a bad job over the last decade?
The DUP candidate candidly told me that Alasdair is a friend of his and that he has no intention of running a negative campaign against anyone. Bell says that he wants to be judged on his platform and for him the DUP has a strongest team at Westminster, Stormont and local government to bring about real positive change in South Belfast. For the DUP he says, it is not about being “bought or sold” by Labour or the Conservatives but using the party’s strength at Westminster to get the best deal for Northern Ireland.
On to the big issue of Unionist unity, Bell argues that he would “love” to see a united Unionist candidate. The Junior Minister pointed out that combined Unionists could have enough votes to take the seat, but from the sounds of his tone and words it would be unlikely that he would stand aside as he pointed out that in South Belfast it is the DUP that are the largest Unionist party but ultimately he says we need to just “see what happens.”
Pacts aside what did he think of two of highest profile opponents in Alasdair McDonnell and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir?
Starting with the latter, Bell points out that he has always been able to work very effectively with Máirtín in securing things like business investment into the constituency. However, a fundamental difference between the two of them is on the question of abstentionism. The DUP candidate points out that he will take his seat in the House of Commons in order to ensure that Departments like Business, Innovation and Skills are directing investment into South Belfast.
Yet, Alasdair McDonnell does take his seat?
Bell says if you compare what he hopes to be his attendance record at Westminster to other MPs, you will see a significantly more active and positive voice in the Commons than there has been in the past.
Overall, it was a solid performance from a candidate who is renowned for his campaigning skills. Bell does have some roots in the constituency and can use his working class background to his advantage. He will put a moderate, yet confident face on the DUP in that area and will run an aggressive campaign as he told me that he is willing to debate any of his opponents “anytime, anyplace, anywhere.” South Belfast just got a lot more interesting.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs