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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty