South Belfast: Crowded Left Field could tempt Unionism for a pact?

South Belfast is set to be one of the most competitive races in Northern Ireland for the upcoming General Election. Unlike the other 17 constituencies, four parties are running in this seat who are within a few percentage points of each other.

On The View, Gareth Gordon put out a useful report on how the constituency has changed over the past few decades.

What used to be a straight, UUP-SDLP battle for the seat, now has four parties seriously eyeing it up as a potential gain. The seat has been held by Alasdair McDonnell since 2005 and he defends a slim majority of just over 900 votes.

2015 Result

Since 2016, the party’s fortunes have continued to slide in the constituency with the loss of the second SDLP seat and the DUP overtaking the party in first preference votes.

In 2017, the constituency voted this way

Since the last election the following changes have happened

  1. SDLP have declined further, falling below 20% of the vote, although the party does tend to poll a bit better at Westminster elections.
  2. DUP have consolidated their position within the Unionist community as the UUP have continued to falter.
  3. Sinn Fein have continued to rise from the low to high teens.
  4. The Green Party have nearly doubled their vote in the constituency
  5. Alliance Party have also slowly continued to increase their vote (although there was a dip in 2016).

The temptation for a pact here will be huge. If the two parties can find an agreed candidate, it should fall into Unionist hands for the first time in 12 years.

It is also important to remember that amongst all of the parties running, there is no love lost between them. There is a growing ABA (Anybody But Al) sentiment with some of the SDLP’s main rivals.

So far the declared candidates are;

Alasadair McDonnell (SDLP)

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (Sinn Fein)

Paula Bradshaw (Alliance)

Possible Candidates;

Clare Bailey for the Greens would be the most logical choice for them.

Christopher Stalford for the DUP, he had a broad appeal amongst Unionist voters and could motivate them to come out for a possible DUP victory in this seat.

Mike Nesbitt has been touted for the UUP, but Danny Kennedy’s name has also been thrown out there too as  possible unity candidate.

  • Zig70

    I predict a unionist victory in a repeating pattern of winning something that will soon be defunct.

  • Vince

    Hasn’t a pact between DUP & UUP already been ruled out here? If there was a pact I think that many UUP voters would leak to AP (ex UCUNF candidate) and SDLP. Might not help DUP much. Can’t see SB electing DUP anyway given RHI fallout, support for Brexit and the mounting crisis in the NHS among other issues.

  • Ryan A

    Given the decisive role UUP and Green voters could play I have a feeling Alliance might have shot themselves in the foot with the press office antics earlier this week. Nonetheless it could be forgotten about by June.

  • Vince

    Agree about AP but the Greens behaved really oddly here, apparently demanding that SDLP (sitting MP) and SF withdraw and unite behind their candidate when they lie a fairly distant 5th in the constituency. Even worse, they indicate that they could never support a pro-life candidate. At least we have clarity though – that trumps everything for them – beats Brexit, NHS, education, environmental issues, SSM etc etc.

  • Ryan A

    In fairness they’ve been totally consistent on Abortion rights in Assembly elections, it’s a big ticket item for them; and would have sent very mixed messages to their voters had they rolled in behind Al who to say is a Social Conservative on the issue would be putting it mildly.

  • Vince

    It just seems strange that this now appears to be their main message.

  • Ryan A

    Yes. Indeed I agree that it was naive in the extreme to think a sitting MP would stand down. Especially when they had nothing to offer elsewhere. I know Alliance facilitated candidates in 2001 but they didn’t ask for clear runs anywhere; never mind asking someone to hand them their own hard won seat.

  • Vince

    Whether we like it or not, this is being seen as a Brexit election. I therefore hope you are wrong and SB is not won by a Brexit supporting party that has also (although not entirely alone) effectively crashed the Assembly.

  • ted hagan

    I’ll be interested to see the turnout. I sense tremendous voter apathy, but then again…

  • Vince

    Still early days. Another 6 weeks of depressing news about the NHS and with several hospitals in the constituency, who knows, might not just be about Brexit.

  • ted hagan

    Brexit/Remain seems almost to have become just a different shade of Orange/Green.

  • ted hagan

    Have you got a date for its ‘defunctness’ yet?

  • Vince

    It shouldn’t, since the dividing lines were not that straightforward. A significant chunk of Unionists obviously voted remain incl at least 2 of their MPs (3 if the rumour about Simon Hamilton is correct). Also there were some “nationalists” that voted leave – and a lot more in places like WB that simply didn’t bother.

  • ted hagan

    The Brexit/border poll debate may have made some unionist Remainers run for cover though.

  • North Down dup

    Even with no pack between dup and uup, dup should still have enough votes to take south Belfast, I think they will gain more than 2000 votes than they did last time, , they will take a lot of ukip votes which got over 2000 last time and will keep on eating into the uup Base in SB. Sdlp need half of alliance votes

  • Vince

    I can understand that but disappointing if true – this is fundamentally about economics, trade & freedom of movement for work etc.

  • North Down dup

    Am sorry vince, it will be about orange and green

  • ted hagan

    Perhaps sending a message to the Assembly parties by not voting might be a better option in that case.

  • Vince

    It could have cut across that in many constituencies (and may still exert an influence in SB, SA & EB) – although perhaps not to the advantage of the DUP!

  • Vince

    Or perhaps sending a message to the 2 main Assembly parties (by voting against them) that not agreeing a budget (before RHI) is a major drag on the NHS (and education etc), whilst not having an Executive is causing even more paralysis (if that were possible) in decision making/forward planning.

  • North Down dup

    The dup will have enough votes out in SB,SA and EB, there is going to have to be tactical voting in those areas to stop the dup

  • Vince

    There will be. Danny Kinihan would not have won in 2015 w/o it, being just one example.

  • ted hagan

    It’s great to fantasise but the reality is that in the aftermath of the Assembly elections the electorate will be more polarised than ever with a strong DUP showing to counter the recent SF successes, probably with help of some Ulster Unionist defections.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’d speculate that Steven floated the pact idea without thinking about what it meant, and then used their position on social issues to justify pulling out. Everyone makes mistakes.

  • Vince

    That may be the case (again surprising) although don’t think he was actually the originator of the proposal. I think the basic premise was/is a good one and it was/is not sectarian given that that the apparent basis for calling the election is Brexit (OK, we all know that it really is because Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless and unelectable).

  • Brendan Heading

    I don’t think he was the originator of the proposal, I think he heard the talk from Colum Eastwood and responded warmly without considering the consequences.

    Pacts on face value give the appearance of a good pragmatic choice and create the impression of people working together, and I can see why they seem attractive. Unfortunately, in the Northern Ireland reality, they are a distorting, malignant influence on politics and the parties that find themselves within them. I like the rather nerdy analogy of the One Ring from the Lord of the Rings novels. Successive people believe they can wield the Ring for good; in the end it destroys them.

  • North Down dup

    Am a right to say the dup are up 3500 votes from 2015 and uup has gone down, and the dup will eat into the tuv votes in SA. Tactical votes will not be enough the uup will need a pack

  • Vince

    I don’t think your last point is correct. If SDLP get to 25% they will hold (although perhaps not by very much).

  • Jimmy

    You have to remember that UUP voters may not go directly to the DUP. If there is a pact there is every chance Alliance could pick perhaps a 1/3 of the UUP votes and scrape in. (Remember E Belfast 2015) Also, could some Green Party voters vote tactically for Alliance as well.

    In relation to the AP statement earlier this week, all the political nerds (like myself) may know about it, but the reality is how much of the electorate will be checking the Alliance party (or any other parties) website on a weekly basis? Stories sometimes get stuck in the political bubble, just like this one

  • Vince

    I completely agree that some pacts can be malign but this is not always the case (and would not have applied here) – AP not contesting against Joe Hendron in WB arguably had very positive consequences, as did their withdrawal from ND in 2001 re Sylvia Hermon. The real malign distortion here is the FPTP electoral system.

  • Brendan Heading

    South Belfast is a four-way marginal; there are paths to victory for all four candidates. The DUP could well take the seat; but Greens and Alliance tactically switching to SDLP could equally well secure it for them.

  • Vince

    If AP don’t field David Ford then a lot of his votes will go to UUP. Similarly some SDLP and GP votes will go there. A lot may depend on the perceived “partisanship” of the DUP candidate.

  • North Down dup

    That’s true if greens and alliance go to the sdlp in bulk sdlp will win

  • Brendan Heading

    I definitely agree on the last part; FPTP makes a mess of everything.

    Alliance did not stand in an general election in West Belfast since 1979 so I’m not sure where you are going there. It’s also quite possible that Sylvia would have won by herself in 2001; she’s won despite being challenged by Alliance at every general election ever since.

    I can imagine all sorts of ways for a pact to go wrong. I guarantee you that at some time between now and polling day, someone in Sinn Féin will say words to the effect that their chief goal in the election is to beat the Unionists and push for a border poll. For extra fun, one of their MLAs or MP candidates might even be recorded saying this in a colourful way in private. Or they might put out a leaflet like they did in North Belfast in 2015 where they posted census statistics about the P and RC strength in the constituency. Can you imagine how this would play out in the context of a pact ? It would be a mess.

  • Vince

    I don’t think that SF have a serious chance here. In a constituency like SB, fighting hard then NOT to take your seat has to be a drag. Similarly their candidate is/was unfortunately (for all of us) a Finance Minister without a budget. And finally he has a huge job convincing anyone that he would rather NOT be taking a seat in Westminster vs being Finance Minister (or Education Minister etc) here.

  • Brendan Heading

    Don’t get me wrong, I have no time whatsoever for SF’s SB candidate. But the voters apparently did not care that he did not deliver a budget, as they saw fit to gift him with an extra 2000 votes. One thing that M O’M arguably does very well is campaigning; the working-the-room sort of stuff.

    It’s not in the bag but SF are very much in with a chance here. The question is whether they really want to lock one of their most senior politicians out of Stormont.

  • Vince

    In terms of WB, Joe Hendron only won by ~500 votes in ’92. It is widely believed that this was a further push to SF/IRA down the peace process route. I think they have begun contesting WM elections again more recently there?

    Re: ND in 2001, yes she might have won anyway but we only know that now with the benefit of hindsight.

    Take your point in the last para. One way of avoiding that in places like NB would have been to have non-party candidates from business, academic or other backgrounds.

  • Vince

    Well, one can but hope and make the argument.

  • Vince

    A triumph of very superficial style over substance & ability.

  • Brendan Heading

    Alliance began contesting WB again in 2010 as part of a renewed policy to contest all 18 seats.

    I remember at the time in 92 that SF went around saying that the loss of the seat damaged the peace process and they tried to get the result overturned in court on a number of technicalities (I recall having a sense of deja vu when a similar attempt was made to overturn Gildernew’s vote in 2010..). The IRA ceasefire was already on the cards IMHO.

    I’m given to understand that the SDLP proposal involved standing non-aligned candidates in all the constituencies that, coincidentally enough, would be SF target constituencies, such as North Belfast. SF would never sign up to a proposal like that, which is why this pact was doomed to failure. This is another reason why Alliance would have been foolish to go anywhere near it.

  • Brendan Heading

    Absolutely. a lot of people are taken in by it.

  • Vince

    That’s not quite right Brendan. The 3 proposed seats included East Derry which is not a realistic target for SF.

  • Vince

    Just a minor point. The complaint wasn’t that it had damaged the peace process (it wasn’t part of the mantra then). It was that the seat had been “stolen”.

  • Mark Petticrew

    Public relations between the parties haven’t exactly been of the sort you’d expect to see prior to any deal being made; Robin Swann, for instance, calling Arlene Foster “a bit arrogant” for saying South Belfast was basically DUP territory. Nonetheless, a unionist pact hasn’t yet been categorically ruled out, allowing space for such a deal to materialise.

    The bottom line is the unionists need to unite if they’re serious about making the South Belfast MP seat a unionist one; the collective unionist share of the vote having fallen under 40% here for the first time in 2011, now totalling just 31.9% as of 2017.

    In the event of the UUP standing aside, the 3,863 UUP voters in South Belfast will probably go the same way as they did in East Belfast in 2015; most of them rowing in behind the DUP as the sole unionist party in the field, with a notable minority opting for the Alliance Party candidate instead.

  • hgreen

    Not sure how you can make that conclusion. Is McDonnell the only person in south Belfast that can help,protect the NHS, education and the environment?

  • hgreen

    It’s called a key differentiator. Their environmental credentials and their support for woman’s and LGBT rights is what sets them apart from the other knuckle dragging politicians.

  • Fear Éireannach

    I think SF could have said something like we need MOM in Stormont and nominated a less experienced person, who would achieve useful visibility for the future, but without getting too many votes to avoid blame if the DUP win.

  • Mark Petticrew

    Through enabling the potential lock-out of one of their most senior politicians, it would suggest that Sinn Féin is prepared to keep a lock on the gates of Stormont itself; again reflecting the party’s cooled approach towards the institutions since January.

    Patricia MacBride touched on this very point on yesterday’s Sunday Politics regarding both Máirtin Ó Muilleoir and Chris Hazzard:

    Two Sinn Féin ministers being put into two key seats with the possibility of getting elected shows that that party is looking at a long period of cold storage for Stormont.

  • Charlie Farlie

    In fairness, the Green’s are not the only socially progressive party here. There may be a few ‘knuckledraggers’ yes, but there are more progressive parties.

  • Granni Trixie

    So scandals such as RHI, bad government etc won’t impact? Surely it is likely to narrow DUP appeal? Or does beating themons trump all else?

  • Vince

    Well, DUP & SF between them, have had control of Finance, NHS and Education locally for several years now. I don’t think they have made/are making a great fist of it – endorsing their stewardship by electing one of their candidates does not seem like a smart move. In terms of Brexit, DUP support it and SF won’t go to WM to oppose it or participate in Committees to influence it. They also barely, if at all, campaigned against it in the referendum.

    Personally, I worry about AP candidate and the NHS given that she flew under a Conservative flag for WM before.

  • Zig70

    Next boundary change SB is no more

  • Brendan Heading

    I very specifically recall SF saying that the loss of the seat had been a setback to the peace process. It stood out because this was a party with a paramilitary wing basically threatening people who didn’t vote for it. Unfortunately now I can’t dig up the quote.

  • Brendan Heading

    I believe you are absolutely right Mark. By running high profile candidates in seats that are theoretically winnable they are openly signalling that they a move away from Stormont.

    Hazzard’s prospects are even stronger than Ó Muilleoir’s.

  • Vince

    No problem Brendan. If they did say it, I think it was counter-intuitive since it indicated that their armalite & ballot box strategy wasn’t working – reduced to zero MPs when SDLP had 4.

  • Vince

    It will be very tight but I think some commentators might be overly downgrading Margaret Ritchie’s chances in S Down. There is a consistent variance between AEs and WM elections in that constituency & just 2 years ago MR had a 6000 lead over the same candidate. There will be tactical voting and Alliance votes split at least 4:1 SDLP:SF in that seat. If I was betting I would say MR to hold by ~1000-1500 votes.

  • Colin Lamont

    Mccrea never seemed able to maximise the DUP vote here- compare Assembly to Westminster figures. The DUP raw vote total he attracts tends to be lower. This is in addition to the tactical voting he suffered from. Perhaps a new DUP candidate will neutralise this twin problem. Unlike the betting markets I make this a likely DUP gain.

  • Colin Lamont

    Perhaps the most unpredictable and therefore exciting seat in the UK. I feel we will see the continued rise of Sinn Fein and also a significant DUP squeeze on other unionist parties in response to the March election results.
    Given these macro trends, I predict a narrow DUP victory. In 2015 the UKIP candidate (and ex-local councillor) probably cost them the seat with his 2k odd votes, mostly obtained from the otherwise DUP core territory of Donegall Rd/Sandy Row. Most of these should go the only major NI party which supported Brexit this time round. Mairtin is a strong and energetic campaigner, he may deprive the SDLP of just enough votes to cost them the seat. The unaffiliated vote is too badly split with a strong Green presence to give Alliance the seat.

  • Mark Petticrew

    The standing of MLA’s Elisha McCallion and Michelle Gildernew in Foyle and Fermanagh-South Tyrone respectively is indicative of this also, both of whom will fancy their chances on June 8. Indeed, in the most perfect of storms for the party, we could be talking about 4 new Sinn Féin MP’s all being plugged from Stormont at the other side of this election.

  • Peggy kelly

    The DUP will not win this seat. The only way Unionism can win is if it agrees a non aligned unity candidate or if a popular UUP candidate stands alone. A non- duper will attract the votes necessarry from all corners. Put Emma pengelly up and u will see Unionist share of the vote hot an all-time low.

  • Peggy kelly

    But that’s the point. SF stand on an abstentionist ticket and people vote for them on that same principle. SF won’t expect to win in SB but they will relish the opportunity to build on recent success in the area, furthering the profile of Mom.

  • Peggy kelly

    Agree. I canvassed for SF in the area for the recent assembly election and I got a strong sense that folk were willing to lend a vote to SF as a once off just to mess up Arlene’s hair a bit. Will they stick is an unknown.

  • Mark Petticrew

    In spite of RHI and everything in between, 225,413 people – a rise of 22,846 from 2016 – came out to vote for the DUP in the recent Assembly election, and whilst the party’s share of the vote decreased, it was a marginal drop of 1.1% – such is the strength of unionism here.

    Having largely held up their base of support in March, the DUP will feel fairly confident about doing so again on June 8, especially given the fact that FPTP elections provide the ideal platform to circle the wagons to the lead party’s benefit.

  • North Down dup

    Dup votes has gone up they have enough votes , whoever stands for the dup will be a Al time high,the uup will be a all time low, sdlp needs help from SF voters which won’t happen they want to keep on eating into the sdlp vote in SB

  • Granni Trixie

    Yes, but beyond (my) understanding.

  • james

    A vote for Sinn Fein is basically a protest vote. Doesn’t really achieve anything per se.

  • Granni Trixie

    I’d save your worries, she got elected to the Assembly comfortably twice.

  • Granni Trixie

    A Party has to be relevant to the electorate or wither and die. Perhaps they think this is one of th most relevant issues around. Or could be they are listening and taking too much note of their own activists for whom this is the issue they care about. Nowadays I think any party had to be careful to manage the expectations of activists who perceive their party to be single issue.

  • mjh

    It will be interesting if the reduction in seats reappears in the Conservative manifesto, Zig.

    Just thinking – if there are a lot more Tory MP’s after the election that would mean a lot more potential Tory losers from the reduction.

    May has ditched many of the David Cameron policies. Could this turn out to be another one?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/28fda3f303b5102c56e16bfbcb363536546ed64df781675dbc221a24a09f97b9.jpg Just been confirmed by unanimous show off hands in Sandy Row Rangers Supporters Club, The Linfield Manager David Healy as the agreed Unionist Candidate for South Belfast ! #Championi !

  • Jim M

    It still seems weird. I’m no genius but I could have told you it wouldn’t work. Re the pro choice thing – I can understand it, even though im increasingly critical of pro choice ideology. Clare Bailey is very pro choice and I imagine that helps garner a lot of support especially among younger women. There’s no way a deal with the SDLP makes sense.

  • Jim M

    I dunno if ‘knuckle dragging’ is helpful, but you’re right re the ‘key differentiator’. Abortion is a non-issue across the water but a big one here; I can understand why a lot of ‘progressives’ get het up about it. AFAIK the only other party that’s as pro-choice is PBP, and their Marxism and (lite) Republicanism makes them a harder sell.

  • hollandia

    YOu miss entirely the fact that large swathes of SB will be merged with WB for the next WM election. SF will see O’Muilleoir making inroads in that part of the Constituency. They have no chance of winning it, but I’d wager this is about putting down a marker for next time. And I’d say Paul Maskey should be very worried.

  • Granni Trixie

    Update: Nesbitt not standing in SB. UUP still undecided who,if any, will.

  • Vince

    Appreciate that but still doubt that he would want to be an MP for that redrawn constituency either.

  • hollandia

    It would leave him more time to count his money. Anyway, for SF it’s about numbers. And let’s face it he’s more likely to garner votes in the leafier parts of the new constituency than any other shinner I can think of.