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In March’s Assembly election, South Belfast became the first and only Assembly constituency to elect all five MLAs from different political parties.
The result was a fitting reflection of a constituency which is the most diverse of the 18 northern Irish constituencies.
In 2005, the seat was first taken by the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell in a result that was, at the time, viewed as a shock.
McDonnell’s 32.3% share of the vote ensured he took the seat as a consequence of the two unionist candidates splitting their combined 51% share of the vote on a 28.4%-22.7% divide.
Back then, the SDLP comfortably commanded the lion’s share of the nationalist vote, with Alex Maskey securing just 9% of the vote for Sinn Fein.
The nature of that division within nationalism was crucial to McDonnell claiming the seat, a result which has stood alone as the minor nationalist party’s singularly significant electoral advance in the past 20 years- until March, when Pat Catney’s stunning result in securing a seat in Lagan Valley gave them a rare electoral advance in new ground.
The SDLP incumbent was able to comfortably retain the seat in 2010 on account of the decision of Sinn Fein to pull their candidate from the field. McDonnell romped home with an impressive 41% share of the vote, ahead of the combined votes of the two unionist candidates- including Paula Bradshaw, contesting the seat under an Alliance banner.
Fast forward to 2015, and the picture changes dramatically.
This time, Sinn Fein refused to pull their candidate, running Mairtin O’Muilleoir against the SDLP incumbent. This would be O’Muilleoir’s first constituency-wide contest, having been co-opted into the Assembly in the place of Alex Maskey, the party’s standard-bearer in South Belfast since 2001.
This election came at a time when nationalists were voting in fewer numbers, resulting in a number of electoral setbacks at local government, Assembly and Westminster level, including the loss of the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat to Tom Elliot in 2015.
The net result of this in South Belfast was an unnervingly close contest which saw McDonnell scrape home with just 24.5% share of the vote, the lowest ever percent share for a winning candidate at a single-seat Westminster election.
Sinn Fein’s high profile candidate pulled up with 13.9% share of the vote, which was below the expectations of many observers but still enough to make McDonnell’s lead over the DUP’s Jonathan Bell less than 1,000 votes.
Again, the vote division within unionism worked to the SDLP man’s favour, with the DUP’s Bell taking only 22.2% of the vote and the UUP’s Rodney McCune 9.1%. Bob Stoker of UKIP also came in with 4.9% of the vote.
Fast forward to March of this year, and the plot has thickened even further.
The SDLP fell behind the DUP in terms of 1st preference votes in the 2016 Assembly election, though the gap between the two narrowed by March of this year to just 622 votes- down from 720 votes in 2016.
The surge in support for Sinn Fein meant that the party was able to hit 17.7%, almost matching the Alliance tally of 17.8%.
Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw was part of the duo that impressively increased the party’s vote share to 17.8% in March. The problem for Alliance is that, unlike neighbouring East Belfast, their candidate is not seen as the only viable alternative to the DUP.
This is also the constituency with the most contested middle ground, and the 9.9% share taken by the Green Party will continue to hamper Alliance’s ability to credibly challenge at Westminster level here.
Whilst the DUP might have topped the poll in first preferences, the fact that unionism could not get more than a solitary MLA elected in March underscores the problem Emma Lyttle Pengelly is going to have in securing sufficient votes to stay ahead of the pack.
The UUP and TUV candidates secured just over 10% of the vote between them in March, and, with the same UUP candidate in the shape of Michael Henderson contesting the seat again this time, it’s difficult to see Pengelly pushing upwards of 25-27% of the overall vote- not least since Henderson was able to improve the 2016 Assembly performance for his party by some 2.3% in just a year, partially at the expense of the DUP, who saw their vote share fall significantly over that year by some 1.2%.
That 25-27% target vote share figure for Pengelly would only be enough to get her elected were Sinn Fein, Alliance and the Green Party to return with anything resembling the 46% of the overall vote between them.
Whilst on paper this seat looks to be almost a tight 4-way contest, in reality I think it’s likely to be a straight fight between Alasdair McDonnell and Emma Lyttle Pengelly.
Pengelly was the unsuccessful DUP candidate in the March contest, and the immediate aftermath of that election was marked by disharmony between the two leading DUP constituency figures which played out in the public’s glare.
Although McDonnell and his party have witnessed their vote share slide back in recent elections, what should not be discounted is the fact that Alasdair McDonnell worked to secure and then retain the seat in spite of the overall decline of his party across the rest of Northern Ireland in the past 12 years.
That is a formidable achievement for a politician from any party, suggesting a strong ability to work a constituency.
The context of this election is one in which nationalists have returned to voting in unprecedented numbers since March. The Nationalist Surge was a call for a sharper, smarter leadership. The fact that both nationalist parties briefly (and ultimately unsuccessfully) flirted with a pact of sorts indicates that they recognize the different mood prevailing within northern nationalism.
Sinn Fein are pushing their candidate hard across the constituency, even causing some controversy for omitting the word ‘share‘ after vote in this leaflet, but nationalists will know that the extent of tactical voting required to take this seat will only be achievable this time by the incumbent SDLP MP in the form of Alasdair McDonnell (potential Boundary changes to the constituency, if they proceed as envisaged, are likely to propel O’Muilleoir into the favourite position at the next Westminster election if selected as candidate for a South West Belfast seat.)
Unionists will have that same sense.
I expect the DUP to have a very good election, consolidating their advantage in East Belfast and, in all likelihood, reclaiming South Antrim as well. Their problem will be that, in South Belfast, unionism has a smaller voting pool, and is therefore reliant upon the vote balance within nationalism being close enough to allow Pengelly to emerge the winner.
Ultimately, this one will be won by the candidate benefitting more decisively from the tactical nous of voters. It could end up being a result reminiscent of West Tyrone in 1997, when Willie Thompson slipped through to take the seat from two nationalists candidates after neither could convince the nationalist electorate that they were favourite.
I don’t think that’s likely.
Just as Sinn Fein stand to benefit from calculated voting in North Belfast and Fermanagh South-Tyrone, I anticipate a significant move behind McDonnell that should be enough to push him in the direction of the 27-30% figure required to take the seat.
Time will tell.