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
|1997||52%||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.|
|2001||52.8%||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.|
|2005||52.7%||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%.|
|2010||47.7%||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%
|2015||47%||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.|
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%|