Battle for South Belfast: Tough old bull triumphs, the young ‘pretender’ falls

Saving my usual series of where the parties stand analysis for next week, for now I want to do a short series of head dumps on the election.

First, that tough (and very dirty) battle for South Belfast.

There was a number of factors in this seat that made it hard to predict. When the DUP selected Junior Minister Jonathan Bell I thought it was a good choice. I still do.

His problem in getting ahead of Alasdair McDonnell was twofold.

One, incumbency has big advantages on recognition and likelihood of victory. And two, beyond Alliance, only the SDLP register statistically significant levels of cross community support.

A vigorous campaign by Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O’Muilleoir appeared to give Bell a leg up, by stealing a few bricks from the base of McDonnell’s nationalist vote pile.

But the whole electorate was highly fragmented. Specifically Bell had to get past three candidates to build his Jenga brick tower of votes higher than McDonnell’s.

Rodney McCune of the UUP, Bob Stoker now of UKIP who kept hold of a large chunk of the Village, and the Alliance party candidate Paula Bradshaw, the latter two both past UUP candidates here.

By the nature of the constituency (it is largely mixed and middle class with some working class loyalist clustering in The Village, Sandy Row and Taughmonagh) it was like scruming for votes in a thick mist.

The most puzzling aspect from the beginning was Sinn Fein’s apparent certainty that it could take the seat from McDonnell. So puzzled were we here at Slugger that we asked Salmon of Data to crunch the numbers.

His conclusion was unequivocal:

It is very difficult to imagine a path to Sinn Féin winning South Belfast. Essentially they are hoping for a Lazarus-like recovery of the UUP, and complete collapse of support for a sitting SDLP MP.

What he could achieve, certainly, is to do well enough to hand the seat to the DUP.

It is doubtful that too many tears would be shed at the decapitation of their electoral opponents, and it tempting to surmise that this the real reason behind running one of their most popular candidates in the constituency.

Oddly, given at times the wild optimism of Mairtin’s campaign, there was little sign of any SDLP collapse in South Belfast or anywhere else.

And yet O’Muilleoir pushed this scenario right up to twelve o’clock on polling day when he tweeted this message on his own Vine…

At first I thought it was a just piece of fun, but watching it now it seems he was serious. He later called it his ‘positive strategy’, although in reality it smacked a little more of desperation than genuine political confidence.

With just over six thousand votes between seventh placed Bob Stoker and the SDLP poll topper, O’Muilleoir found himself in the lower end of that range in fourth place.

Some pundits are writing this down as the lowest total ever gained by a winning MP. But that’s a lazy analysis which belies what was a very tough and attritional battle.

In the process McDonnell, who is certainly not the slickest or most sure footed of Northern Ireland’s politicians, has proven himself one of Northern Ireland’s toughest.

In the ‘dirty peace’ of Northern Ireland, that toughness will need to be replicated across the party if a viable future for the SDLP is to be secured.

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  • Heather Richardson

    I didn’t know the term “Prod” was considered offensive. Indeed, it’s the term I most often use to describe myself. And I recall a new mum telling me (some years ago, mind you) that’s she’d bought her baby a babygro with ‘Proud to be a Prod’ emblazoned across it. Maybe it’s one of those terms that is or isn’t offensive depending who uses it?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Hi Sharon

    Just a quick interjection but regarding unionist posters on this site we have the following: Dan (I think), Cue Bono, BronzeEchoZero25 (or whatever his handle is), Turgon, mainland Ulsterman, myself, Chris Jones, Nevin, James, Lord Summerisle, Reader, Pete Baker, Brian John Spencer, Glenn Care and a few others to boot.

    There are also a few from a Catholic background who would vote ‘pro-union’ if a referendum came to pass.

    I suppose it’s whether one subscribes to a ‘hierarchy of unionism’ or not as in some people would for example dismiss pro-union, pro-royalist ex-armed forces unionists as ‘non-unionist’ simply because they don’t like Rangers football club and orange parades.

    The (perceived) obligation to blindly support and defend the OO and parades is a hindrance to the unionist cause (IMO).
    Anyhoo, there are plenty of unionists on here, just so ye know. 🙂

  • Sharon Robinson

    That’s a very small list from it Turgon is the only person who strikes me as being a genuine Unionist with identity to British trappings and respect for Orangeism. One member on a site recognised across NI as an important political medium.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I see Sharon.

    So, do you subscribe to the ‘hierarchy of unionism’ idea then?
    What is a unionist then?
    Does one have to respect Orangeism to be a unionist?
    If so, does that mean Catholics can never be proper unionists as they obviously can’t fully respect an organisation that is ‘anti’ their religion?

  • Sharon Robinson

    Interesting point Godsmacked, yes I think I’ll agree with you on this one.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Which bits?

  • Sharon Robinson

    That members of the Orange make the best Unionists.

  • Zeno

    I’ve replied twice now Robin and got no response?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Interesting, different strokes for different folks I suppose.

    Do you disqualify Orangemen who break the laws of the land from the accolade of ‘best unionists’?

    And what about Orange men who openly deride the religion of fellow British citizens?

  • Sharon Robinson

    True Orangewomen and men only, there are strict rules that must be obeyed.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Well that’s fair enough, there are indeed rules to be obeyed.

    I lament the fact that so many tolerate the ones who openly flout the rules, but, that’s topic for a different time I suppose.

    Marching season will be upon us shortly and there’ll be plenty of time for such discussions

  • Sharon Robinson

    Marching season has been under-way for months dear boy, you really aren’t one of us.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    For months you say?

    Well, things have seemingly changed then since my marching days, I always regarded the end of May to be the proper starting time for the season.

  • Sharon Robinson

    We had the St. Patrick’s day parades and then there was the AOD Easter Monday parade and there have been numerous little band and Orange parades in between. Yesterday for instance there was a major VE day Orange parade in Belfast.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Ah, I see.

    A matter of perspective I suppose, I generally regard ‘the season’ as when the bands have their contests/parades and when every weekend is demanding for the band members.

    But yes, factually speaking your interpretation of it would be correct, I suppose I’m just set in my ways with regards to terminology…

  • Sharon Robinson

    Interesting, always interesting to hear a Nationalist’s perspective.

  • Robin Keogh

    Sorry Zeno, i am seriously under pressure with an essay here. They have pulked the deal on welfare i imagine because they fukked up on what they thought they had secured, i prefer a party to do a uturn rather than carry on with a bad decision. The educated people of SB made their decision and some of them chose him, thats just representatives democracy. The flag decision by alliance , SF and the SDLP was democracy in action trying to help unionists accept the concept that belfast is a shared city. All party leaders claim to want themmuns votes …hence robinsons failed catholic outreach.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Well, maybe ‘Ulster nationalist’.

    But just for future reference I was an avid follower of the loyalist band scene back in the day (my first ever cassette was ‘Blood and Thunder’ by Pride of the Village) and walked with a pipe band for years and finally joined my local Loyalist flute band about a year before I left NI.

    So yes, perspective indeed.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I think we’ve nailed the problem Sharon, you see ‘one’ unionist even though the list contains 14 names.

    Sinn Fein don’t get to decide who qualifies as a nationalist (or re-unificationist) likewise nether you nor I get to write people off as unionists or non-unionists just because they may not share your views on the Orange Order and band parades.

    The Orange Order in Scotland was considered to be a hindrance to the unionist cause there.

    If the OO is damaging to the unionist cause then supporting it blindly is in a manner of speaking an ‘anti-unionist’ act.

    So it could be argued that supporters of the OO are in fact ‘bad’ unionists.

    So you can’t really say this is a unwelcoming place for unionists per se rather it is an unwelcoming place for people who seek to impose a pecking order of sorts on the various political strands e.g. one type of nationalism is not inferior to another ditto with the various strands of unionism.

    If you can take on board the views of the other types of unionists who may not wish to follow the late 19th century model of unionism in the 21st century you will then see that there is more of a unionist presence here than you previously thought. (I often argue against mainstream unionism but that is not say automatically I disregard its followers as ‘non-unionist)

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Exactly Granni, I think it would make for an interesting topic on here.

    Some people have strange notions regarding who’s a unionist and who’s not e.g Joe Hoggs once stated outright that he did not consider a particular group of people that I mentioned to be ‘unionist’ despite having the following ‘credentials’:

    Pro-union, pro-monarchy, ex-armed forces (and indeed ‘Protestant’…)

    So what disqualified them from the hallowed circle of unionism?

    They didn’t like the Orange Order or Rangers FC (ironic as it happened, two of the group had a father/grandfather play football for Rangers decades ago).

    It makes no sense whatsoever.

    It reminds me of a time during a Drumcree supportive road-block in ’98 where I heard one of the local loyalist bass drummers shouted to an army load of soldiers to “…go home you British b*****ds!”.
    You couldn’t make it up…

    (Though no doubt on account of being a Rangers supporting, bass drumming ‘loyalist’ he is warmly regarded as ‘a good unionist’)

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I missed it, was it really that bad/funny?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Do you consider members and marchers who flout the rules to be ‘really one of you’?

  • Sharon Robinson

    I really don’t believe you’re a Unionist, just a troll wanting attention.

    The OI may initially have been seen as a hindrance in Scotland, however after the famous parade many commentators felt that the OI give the no campaign some life and swung it for them in the end.

  • mickfealty

    No, no, you have that wrong Granni. It was a super injunction that was talked about [in public], which is…

    ….a directive that forbids both the public disclosure of information on a particular issue and also any disclosure of the existence of the directive itself.

    In other words, as we used to say at school, a load of balls.

  • mickfealty


    It’s a great story, but it has to been completely undermined by that mad NB leaflet…

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’d wager that it’s more of a case of you not wanting to believe that I’m a unionist as it makes some unionists quite uncomfortable to think that former bandsmen can finally admit that unionism and Orangeism has a few things to address.

    If you’re able to just label us as Lundies or trolls or wot-not then it’s much easier to disregard our treasonous points that may be loyalist bands could indeed survive without singing songs about killing Catholics, or having to shout “wooooooaaaaahhhh -U-D-A!!!!” or burning tri-colours or scribbling KAT on huge banners for the world to see etc etc.

    Like I say, you don’t get to tell people who’s a unionist and who’s not.

    If any of my views are flawed then feel free to analyse them and break them down logically, name-calling is just a smokescreen for surrender.

    “The OI may initially have been seen as a hindrance in Scotland, however after the famous parade many commentators felt that the OI give the no campaign some life and swung it for them in the end”

    Very interesting, I’d like to read more about these positive reviews, do you have any links that I might follow?

  • Sharon Robinson

    I have no wish to argue with you, you have made your decision and you can live with it now.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    You’re the one who has made the decision, in this case the decision not to engage and to write me off as a troll/non-unionist because my face doesn’t fit the profile of what YOU determine to be a unionist.

    The only decision I made was to eventually scrutinise that which I was brought up to believe was beyond scrutiny.

    I can’t help it if a lot of the unionist history and mythology is made up or inaccurate (just like a lot of nationalist history).

    If it doesn’t hold water then I’m not going to drink from it.

  • Sharon Robinson

    Cowards die many deaths, the brave only one!!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “on yonder hill, there stood a coo, it’s no there noo, it must have shifted.”