North Belfast by Numbers: Finucane & Dodds set for battle

There are good reasons to believe that, even with a solitary Unionist candidate in North Belfast, there is a possibility of John Finucane pulling off a shock and taking the seat from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds in next month’s Westminster election.

The DUP MP’s vote lead in 2015 over Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly was substantial. Running without a unionist opponent, Dodds claimed over 19,000 votes, with Kelly just under 14,000. The differential turnouts between unionists and nationalists was a considerable factor explaining the gap, exacerbated by Gerry Kelly’s inability to cultivate and grow a decisive electoral support base in the more affluent upper end of the constituency (Antrim Road and Glengormley.)

The long time republican figure played a critically important role as a prominent representative for the traditionally republican working-class areas of north Belfast, but his IRA background always restricted his capacity to grow the party’s support base in the more middle-class areas.

Fast forward to 2017, and the Nationalist turnout just two months ago at the Assembly election proved sufficient to ensure that three nationalists were returned to the five-seater constituency, representing the first time a majority of seats had gone to Nationalists in a north Belfast-wide election.

The SF/SDLP vote (42.5%) in March was almost identical to that secured by candidates from the three nominally unionist parties combined- the DUP, UUP and PUP (42.8%).

Crucially, a People Before Profit candidate also took some 3.8% of the vote. Analysing the transfer pattern of PBP candidates confirms that they overwhelmingly gain support from within nationalism- as evidenced by the fact that the only two constituencies in which the all-Ireland party has ever managed to get candidates returned as MLAs have been West Belfast and Foyle.

In order to mount a serious challenge capable of ousting Nigel Dodds as MP, Sinn Fein knew that they would be required to motivate nationalists to turn out whilst also finding a way of attracting strong support from historically more SDLP-minded areas within the constituency.

The context of Stormont’s suspension, Brexit, RHI scandal, Liofa, Acht na Gaeilge, McGuinness’ passing and a new Sinn Fein northern leader all has contributed towards a renewed enthusiasm in electoral politics for the nationalist and republican base manifesting itself in the Nationalist Surge that reduced Unionism to minority status alongside Nationalism two months ago.

In the absence of a pact to counter the Unionist Pact which has given a key advantage to Dodds, republicans will know that they require the narrative to quickly- and credibly- become that this contest is a straight choice between Dodds and their candidate.

Alas, fortune would appear to have favoured the brave.

The party’s selection of John Finucane as candidate was masterful. The Finucane name resonates throughout northern nationalism, crossing the class divide like few others. Finucane’s personal and professional background make him the perfect candidate for addressing Sinn Fein’s Achilles heel- ie their failure to make a decisive breakthrough in terms of support amongst the professional class within northern nationalism.

Finucane’s broad appeal within northern nationalism is even reflected in the list of electors who signed his nomination papers, representing well known figures in the constituency in the legal, education and sporting realms (including Cliftonville FC’s Joe’ The Goal’ Gormley.)

Where Finucane has been particularly fortunate is in the response of the non-Unionist parties to his nomination.

People Before Profit are not fielding a candidate, whilst the SDLP lately introduced a very low profile figure to match up against Finucane. In a further boost, Alliance have decided against running their high profile local councillor and two time Assembly candidate, Nuala McAllister, in favour of another low profile entry in the form of Sam Nelson.

The North Belfast contest will quickly become one between a senior and veteran DUP incumbent in Nigel Dodds and a new Republican candidate in John Finucane. Whilst Dodds will remain favourite on account of the de jure pact within Unionism, a de facto Nationalist pact backing Finucane could yet make this the constituency to watch in June.

North Belfast Westminster Contests 1997-2015

ElectionDUP/UUPSF/SDLPContest Summary
199752%40%Cecil Walker’s last victorious campaign as MP. Running without any Unionist opposition, Walker comfortably held a seat he’d first claimed in 1983. Tom Campbell took 5% for Alliance. Main story here was SF establishing parity with the SDLP in the constituency.
200152.8%46.2%A rampant post-GFA DUP seized the opportunity to claim this seat from the ageing Walker, with Dodds securing a decisive victory with more than three times the vote of the sitting MP. Kelly pulled ahead of Magennis by almost 2,000 votes. There was no Alliance candidate.
200552.7%44.8%Dodds consolidates support, winning over 45% on his own, as Kelly pushed significantly ahead of SDLP’s Magennis with more than 28% for the SF candidate. Alliance took just 1.4%.
201047.7%46.3%The Unionist vote dips below 50% at Westminster for the first time as Kelly pulls unnervingly close (from a Unionist perspective) with the deficit between Dodds and Kelly reduced to some 2,224 votes. Intriguingly, the 1.1% secured by Independent Martin McAuley would’ve put the SF/SDLP vote above combined DUP/UUP for the first time.

Alliance took 4.9%

201547%42.1%Dodds ran unopposed as a Unionist candidate due to a Unionist pact, a decision which galvanized unionists and deflated nationalists in equal measure, with the latter not turning out in the same numbers. Alliance lifted vote share to 7.2% while Workers Party took 2.3% and an Independent 1.3% running from an Ardoyne base.
2017 Assembly42.8%42.5%

N.B. with PBP


Nationalists claim a majority of seats in a North Belfast constituency election for the first time ever. Combined SF/SDLP vote percent almost identical to combined Unionist votes of DUP/UUP/PUP. Crucially, another 3.8% of votes are secured by a PBP candidate. Alliance take 8.4%



  • Shinner O’Toole

    NB is one constituency where the demographic clock is most obvious to those of us who are number anoraks. Today the two communities are neck and neck in the over 18 age group however Unionism has an advantage in that the over forty cohort heavily favours Dodds. Watch the gap.

  • Ryan A

    For what it’s worth I don’t envisage SF benefiting enough from Alliance running a lower profile candidate or the Green vote getting squeezed here either. In fact I think the Green’s might benefit with PBP not being in the field.

    I think dyed in the wool SDLP voters in North Belfast won’t likely have taken kindly to Michelle O’Neill’s directive that their candidate stand down.

  • Vince

    The sadness here is that John Finucane did not run as an Independent candidate in the model suggested by Colum Eastwood. With that he would have held together basically the entire SF/SDLP vote and taken a large number of Alliance and PBP voters. He may even have attracted cross-community support from Raymond McCord type Unionists by running on a potentially very credible victims platform. On winning he could then have had that voice heard in the HoC. Instead he is less likely to succeed and unfortunately he has lost that credibility to speak for all victims by aligning with a party that defended/justified an organisation that created so many victims.

  • Granni Trixie

    The poster writes about the necessity of Sf redirecting the narrative with no apparent sense of self irony…..

  • Henry joy

    The aggressive assaults by Feeney & Collins on Mallon will motivate traditional SDLP voters to support their candidate. Similarly, SF attacks on PBP could drive their support base to row in behind Gemma Weir & workers party! Either way Finucane could have attracted ALL anti Brexit votes but sadly opted for SF uber Alles.

  • EddieWhyte

    Why does nobody here post under their own names? There is no real chance of dialogue as long as people feel they have to hide in the shadows.

  • Roger

    I’m not a public person. What goes up on Internet under one’s own name can be googled etc. That wouldn’t suit me. Especially politics!

  • Jag

    “a new Sinn Fein northern leader all has contributed towards a renewed enthusiasm in electoral politics for the nationalist and republican base”

    Ah come off it Chris, unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Shinner, she’s a lightweight, was at Agriculture, was particularly so at Health for seven months and she’s perceived as a robotic figurehead who is lacklustre to the floating voter. Many didn’t embrace her Loughgall speech, and I can’t see many traditional unionist voters coming on side with her. She’s no Marty, God rest him.

  • Shinner O’Toole

    Pot Kettle

  • Zig70

    My kid says Dodds has an uncanny resemblance to Pennywise. Could do a stand in if he falls ill. What SF are doing in n and s belfast makes sense and it might work to win these seats eventually but they will either leak out the other side to pbp or kill their assembly transferability by having only one bland brand. Plenty still won’t vote for them until they get a more honest troubles narrative than innocent freedom fighters.

  • Skibo

    Eddie perhaps the mask of another name can result in a more open discussion. We all know that when in public we all tone down our beliefs.

  • Skibo

    There could be another story behind the eventual result in North Belfast with the number of new registrations.

  • ted hagan

    The words ‘nationalist’ and ‘republican’ seem to be becoming interchangeable, which is interesting in itself.

  • Mark Petticrew

    Consuming enough of that 46.3% figure to defeat the sole unionist candidate will be quite a task, and so I think Sinn Féin will fall short this time out. That said, the party’s share of the vote will definitely be something to look out for in view of the Tory plan to change the constituency boundaries.

    When the 2015 results of North Belfast are applied to the newly-proposed constituency of North-West Belfast of which most of North Belfast is being subsumed into, the disparity between Sinn Féin and the collective unionist tally contracts from 5,326 votes to 1,423.

    Assuming the Tories don’t alter or shelve altogether the boundary changes again, it therefore bodes well for Sinn Féin if they exceed their 2010 watermark share of 34% in North Belfast on June 8; something of which John Finucane’s broad appeal as well as the surrounding context of this election would signal as being certainly achievable.

  • willow

    “The differential turnouts between unionists and nationalists was a considerable factor explaining the gap”

    Is there any evidence for this?

  • Granni Trixie

    As I have commented many times on Slugger.

  • Granni Trixie

    I don’t agree with you. It gives everyone the same fresh start to create an identity of their choosing especially in a context where people tend to ascribe neat labels in each other, often getting it wrong.
    I for one have no sense of “having” to hide in shadows.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Will someone please think of the constituents as individuals …?

    Particularly ones who can think beyond anti-Dodds and/or anti-Sinn Féin terms.

    Say what you want about the prospects of say McCauley or Nelson, but these will be two candidates who will put their best foot forward. Perhaps with a bit of methodical networking the tortoise parties like the SDLP and Alliance and the Greens to work hard to lay the seeds of small support that will catch up against the complacent sleeping hares a bit.

    Neither Dodds nor Finuncane seem to try to see the constituents as their bosses, but rather their enablers.

    The numbers don’t decide, the people have this power.

  • Granni Trixie

    Far from broadening his appeal, JF has narrowed it by his fulsome embrace of SF. His action probably undermines support for the family campaign.

  • jeep55

    Sam Nelson is Nuala McAllister’s partner and they have a young child. Sam is also a senior party strategist. So I expect Alliance to retain the 8% or in the absence of a UUP runner actually up their percentage.

  • ted hagan

    Fair enough

  • ted hagan


  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’d say that many unionists don’t know the difference (in fact some unionists think everyone else are republicans…)

  • nilehenri

    hardly. furthermore the ‘family campaign’ is a legal issue, not an emotive one. his political views have nothing to do with achieving justice.

  • Backbencher

    Seriously disappointing with Finucane. Just when I thought there may be some republicans with a moral compass, he goes and hitches his wagon to the Shinners.

    The murder of his father was an indisputable wrong, however it now appears that his personal view is that the slaughter that took place in Ulster was only wrong when it involved his own family.

  • Shinner O’Toole

    Yes, the results

  • Shinner O’Toole

    Republicans are nationalists, but nationalists are not necesarily republicans.

  • Shinner O’Toole

    This comment is so typical of Unionist intransigence and smacks back to the bad old days of Unionist fascist rule. A person’s political beliefs and their personal world view shouldn’t invite the blatant discrimination you are wishing on JF. Try looking at it the other way around, if SF can attract talent such as JF, Mary Lou etc. Maybe the party has something positive to offer the future beyond your own natural sectarian assumptions.

  • 1729torus

    At one time, Irish nationalism in Ulster was the most moderate.

  • grumpy oul man

    Explain that please, and supply some proof.

  • grumpy oul man

    Unionism and loyalism became interchangeable a long time ago, your point please?

  • willow

    How do the results demonstrate a differential in turn-out?

  • mickfealty

    It’s fortunate for John Nicola’s baby is due soon, he’s probably got the best run at this he’s ever going to get.

  • Granni Trixie

    There is nothing wrong with someone whose family has felt the impact of the troubles joining a political party. However Sf take on IRA violence and intimidation – they still justify it – makes JF current position bizarre and is sure to offend many other victims.

  • Granni Trixie

    Since when was taking a moral view on paramilitarism “sectarian”?

  • Granni Trixie

    That is very unfair to, say, the SDLP Party which rejected violent tactics and identify as ‘nationalists’. ‘republicans’ in common parlance however are more recent converts to non violence.

  • mickfealty

    It’s just Robin proving once again why he’s the most banned commenter in the history of Sluggerdom.

  • ted hagan

    Which is why articles like the above sew confusion

  • ted hagan

    Maybe you didn’t notice but I’m not referring to unionism or loyalism, so what’s your point?

  • ted hagan

    Which one?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    In NI Eddie, we are all still living in a culture of potential targeting and intimidation in many places, which can simply shade off to social ostracism in others. Anyone commenting robustly will attract such attention not only on themselves but on their family and friends. For many here the alternative to anonymity is silence.

    The ideas expressed and argued honestly should be what counts here, not the final identity of the person putting them forward.

  • grumpy oul man

    I think my point is the same one i made when you were so bored when i referred to victims of loyalist violence you fell asleep,
    but when it comes to nationalism you have no problems staying awake.
    Also it could be pointed out that nationalist and republican paths coming together is perhaps happening but it has been difficult to see light between unionism and loyalism for quite a while.
    the DUP have history in north Belfast of working with the same terror group that murdered Pat Finucane (the latest one involving violence was Twaddle) but this doesn’t seem to trouble you in the least.

  • Gaz

    My feelings exactly and I know that Finucane is motivating the usual unionist non voters to get in behind Dodds-There are many many more victims than the Finucane family

  • ted hagan

    I don’t support the DUP or unionism and I don’t know why you keep implying this. I am a nationalist who has always sought unity by peaceful means. I loathe sectarianism and violence so if you’re looking for someone to engage in your puerile ‘Well they started it’ ramblings then look elsewhere.

  • SDLP supporter

    Not true. What happened to Pat Finucane was appalling and on the same level as all the hundreds of other murders in North Belfast.

    I think it is regrettable that John Finucane has aligned himself with the political wing of the biggest human rights’ abusers in the troubles, namely the Provisional IRA. He has given quite a few hostages to fortune when he says he will be a voice for all victims in the conflict. If he makes good his commitment, he coulf find himself uncomfortably close to a lot of people who he allies himself with politically.
    Martin McAuley, a very intelligent guy, is arguably politically more experienced than John Finucane, and has already been an election candidate.
    Finally, Sinn Fein would like to take ownership of the word ‘republican’ as and when it suits them. For them being a ‘republican’ means supporting the use of physical force.

    Let’s be clear, I know of no Irish nationalists, including SDLP members, who are not republican in that they want a 32 county republic controlled by the people of Ireland in all their diversity. I have never yet met an SDLP supporter who was a monarchist and, back in 1998, the bicentenary of the United Irishmen, Sinn Fein were notoriously quiet.

  • AntrimGael

    What was that about playing the man Mick?

  • AntrimGael

    As a North Belfast man I would love to see John take the seat but I don’t think the numbers are just there……. yet! Unionists will rally around Dodds and with the SDLP and Alliance standing SF will probably fall short by 2 or 3000.
    However the new boundary changes will make the next election interesting and a Nationalist candidate may well take it then. One only has to walk through North Belfast to see what way the wind is blowing demographically. Virtually ALL the new housing builds, public and private, are in areas once deemed Unionist but now overwhelmingly Nationalist.
    New, and bigger developments, are going up, or have gone up, in Torrens, Oldpark, Girdwood, North Queen Street, Dunmore, Cavehill Road, Cliftonville, Limestone, Parkside, upper Antrim Road etc. The vast majority of this new housing is being taken up by a younger Nationalist population.
    One only has to drive, or walk, up the Antrim Road to see the effects of this; it is a sea of uniforms from St. Malachy’s, St. Patrick’s, Dominican College, Little Flower, St. Terese of Lisieux, Park Lodge, Holy Family, Christian Brothers and more young Catholics even going to BRA.
    So Dodds can go ahead and enjoy his likely victory but as usual with Unionism it’s a Pyrrhic one.

  • mjh

    The numbers actually demonstrate just what a mountain John Finucane has to climb if he is to overtake Dodds.

    As Chris points out, SF came closest in 2010 when it secured 34% of the vote to the DUP’s 40%. However there was a UUP candidate then.

    In 2015 SF again took 34%, but the unionist pact delivered 47% to Dodds.

    So what’s different in 2017?

    Falling unionist vote share?
    The only problem is that although nationalist vote share rose between 2016 and 2017, compared with 2010 it has been declining at a similar rate to the unionist share. Unionists were 48% in 2010, 45% in the followings year’s Assembly election, and down to 43% two months ago. The figures for nationalists were 47%, 45% and 43% respectively.

    Growing support for SF?
    The only problem is that the SF vote has been in decline. From 34% in the 2010 Westminster, 32% in 2011 Assembly, back to 34% in 2015 Westminster, it fell to 27% in 2016 Assembly and only recovered to 29% in March.

    Significant benefit from PBPA not standing?
    Well no. Although PBPA took 1559 (3.8%) votes in March only 371 of them transferred to SF. More went to SDLP (452) and Alliance (442). 138 went to unionist candidates. (NB The Workers Party and Greens had already been eliminated).

    An ability of John Finucane to attract middle-class or personal voters that Gerry Kelly could not reach?
    That may well be possible – we simply don’t know yet. But being a new candidate (as Chris pointed out with reference to SDLP and Alliance) also means he cannot count on the personal votes of his predecessor. Nearly 1 in 5 of Gerry Kelly’s votes were personal votes (as consistently demonstrated by Assembly election transfer patterns).

    On the basis of these figures you would expect a DUP vote of around 42% to 45%, and an SF vote of around 31% or 32%.

    Anything more than 34% would be a good result for SF. A win would be spectacular.

  • Katyusha

    he’s probably got the best run at this he’s ever going to get.

    Because North Belfast won’t be a constituency any longer under the proposed boundary changes?

  • Brendan Heading

    It’s all very interesting. Alliancers have for many years been accused by SF activists of being middle class, out of touch snobs, and I know a lot of SDLP types receive the same kind of abuse.

    So what do SF do ? Publicly concede that the coarse inner city men have no chance of securing a parliamentary seat, and hand the job over to a wealthy lawyer who lives in a big house in North Belfast’s stockbroker belt. SF activists – the people who do the actual groundwork – are no doubt happy about this turn of events but I wonder how long they are going to happily carry out the bidding of the well-heeled.

    The logic behind the choice here, though, is straightforward enough. Finucane should run Nigel Dodds closer than Gerry Kelly did. But, looking at the assembly election, even with the “nationalist surge” accounted for, the combined vote of every single SDLP and SF voter will not be enough. Alliance voters will need to switch to Finucane too. Combined with this is the likelihood that the DUP will appeal to Unionists to turn out in greater numbers to stop SF, I think he’ll miss it by 1000-2000 votes at least.

  • Brendan Heading

    This comment is a useful reminder, once again, that Sinn Féin’s electoral strategy is based not upon trying to make the case for their policies, but on waiting on the demographic clock to deliver a majority for them.

    Gerry Kelly issued an apology for circulating a leaflet in 2015 which highlighted the total numbers of the two largest religious groupings in the constituency. But it’s clear that these are the terms within which SF activists see the world.

  • mickfealty

    Who knows? I wouldn’t rely on Mrs M stealing time from Brexit to make a lot of new Tory MPs homeless. No, I meant this Constituency, as is.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I know that, you know that, everyone from a nationalist background knows that.

    How many times have you heard the term ‘pan nationalist front’ or ‘they’re the same’?

    On at least one occasion a unionist on here told me that he/she thought there was next to no point in unionists voting SDLP in mid ulster to keep out SF as there was ‘little difference’ in them.

    So while you’re right I think many unionists think otherwise.

  • Dale Pankhurst

    So, a former Sinn Féin council candidate thinks Finucane may win North Belfast. Unsurprising & tiring reading. Yawn ???

  • Ryan A

    I think Sam is well known within the party but maybe not so much outside. In any case Jason O’Neill polled pretty strongly the last time so I doubt Alliance will move too much in either direction.

    SDLP voters might be starting to shift to SF in ever increasing numbers in South Belfast but it doesn’t seem to be rubbing off on Alliance voters. I’d imagine the same will happen here.

  • willow

    How do the results demonstrate a differential in turn-out?

  • Granni Trixie

    And for the record Nuala will soon be Mayor of Belfast – the reason she did not put her name forward for GE.

  • Granni Trixie


  • Granni Trixie

    Re Gerry Kelly’s personal vote 1:5. How can you know this ..surely most would tend to be people who will vote for Sf whoever stands?

  • Granni Trixie

    But you can’t claim that “what goes on in Slugger stays in Slugger” ofcourse part of the game is to influence public discourse albeit in a small way,

  • Roger

    I certainly make no such claim….I can’t say I’d put my little eds here in terms of influencing public discourse….sounds a bit grand to me…but I suppose it could be described like that….I’d see it more as political anoraks exchanging views with each other.

  • Hugh Davison

    I’m quite happy to post under my own name. What’s there is the unvarnished me. If they want to find you, they will. Besides I’m no longer employed so can’t embarrass an employer.

  • Hugh Davison

    Is that your contribution? Pathetic.

  • Hugh Davison

    Having said that, I’m aware that using a pseudonym (or pen name) allows one the freedom to say things they feel, but would be constrained in saying face-to-face. However it also provides a licence to abuse and insult.
    Also sprach Zarathustra.

  • Granni Trixie

    I know quite a number of journalists who peep in to pick up ideas and looks like some political party’s dispatch posters and commenters to do their bit. Why would they bother if they didn’t think it of value?

    But ofcourse Slugger tends to be populated by anoraks or hobbyists in some cases.

  • Backbencher

    I didn’t think it required much explanation. But just in case it is a genuine question – he has joined SF, the party that were inexplicably linked to those that murdered many many fathers in Northern Ireland and beyond.

  • mjh

    Indeed, Granni. Every party has it’s core voters. They will vote for the party irrespective of candidate, and will give their second (and further) preferences to that party. Transfer analysis of Assembly and Council elections shows that the major parties gain most of their support from such core voters.

    But candidates also attract votes from people who are not core party voters.

    We can see that at successive Assembly Elections nearly 1 in 5 of the voters who gave Gerry Kelly their first preference failed to give their second preference to the other SF candidate. Which is why I term them personal votes for GK, not party votes.

    This is not particularly unusual for a candidate who has worked the constituency for a considerable period of time – but it is well above average for SF.

  • Roger

    Anorak or hobbyist, I think, covers me. I hadn’t thought of journos getting ideas here. Well thanks! I feel more important. Just a tad. Who knows I might help inspire a little headline in some UKNI paper.

  • Roger

    Lucky you re being your own man. I’m not in the same boat.

  • willow

    How so?

  • Paddy Reilly

    Yes, but this is because Unionism’s electoral strategy is based not upon trying to make the case for their policies, but on drawing up provincial boundaries which ensure that Prods predominate and then pretending that these provincial boundaries are international ones.

    If the only political argument against you, from day one, has been demographic (plus the ability to call in troops from overseas), then you can be forgiven a little crowing when the figures start to go the other way.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    SF may hope the deficent is only 1K-2K votes ! If Dodds beats him by 5K plus Finucane’s political career could be the shortest in history ?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Falling Unionist Vote ???? Watch it this time mjh ? A few people could be in for a surprise ? It is pretty motivated at the moment !

  • grumpy oul man

    So dead cat politics rules, of course you don’t have a problem with people standing for the DUP , a party with long standing relationship’s​ with terrorists.
    Do you even admit to yourself the links between Unionist and terrorists.

  • Brendan Heading

    I think it’s unlikely that the Dodds majority will be that wide given the forces that are moving within the nationalist part of the vote at the moment.

  • Brendan Heading

    My expectations are understandably higher of a party which pointedly adapts language involving terms such as equality, tolerance and mutual respect.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Equality, tolerance and mutual respect will only be achieved when colonialism retreats and the military cosh is no longer available. There is no equality when one side has the right to create international borders and the other doesn’t.

  • Paddy Ferris

    Were SF the biggest human rights abusers during the troubles? I would have put that badge on the security forces tbh. Is Finucane not entitled to form his own view on the past without abuse from others? And is it not true that approx 50% of SDLP attendees at a conference prefer to remain under British rule within the UK?