South Belfast by Numbers

2017 A19.4%20.8%17.8%17.7%9.0%37.1%31.9%
2016 A20.0%22.0%16.4%14.2%6.7%34.2%34.1%
2015 W24.5%22.2%17.2%13.9%9.1%38.4%37.7%
2010 W41.0%23.7%15.0%17.3%41.0%41.0%
2005 W32.3%28.4%7.2%9.0%22.7%41.3%51.1%

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.

  • mjh

    I have a feeling that the reduction in seat numbers could be another U-turn in the offing, Gaygael.

    It was Cameron’s big idea – and both he, and the political circumstances that made it seem like a vote winner at the time, are now history.

    If May collects a clutch of Tory seats in Scotland and Wales she might not be so keen on reducing their number. Plus two or three dozen additional Tory MP’s in England could be harder to accommodate with winnable seats after such a big reduction – a problem which would be even more acute if it appeared that the Tories were likely to go into the next election with lower levels of support than this one.

    The Conservatives would still receive a significant seat boost from a normal boundary review based on the current number of MP’s, due to the population movements since the current boundaries were first used in 2010.

  • Gaygael

    Yes. The repeated opposition by the DUP and their much lauded (but as yet unpublished) alternative proposals, coupled with a mooted Tory backbench rebellion looked like it was losing legs anyway.

    As you suggest, it looks even less likely. I think Belfast is 4 (5) distinct communities anyway along the geographical lines, with Shankill a split between North and West. BCC plans to increase the City boundary population by 2035 could see us return to 4 seats in the late 2020s anyway.
    Interesting times ahead.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I would still like to see the full North South East West Belfast constituencies maintained even if it means bringing other DEA into them from Outer. With Belfast having a short term plan to increase its inner population by 20K within the next 5 years I think there should be a big rethink !

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Nationalists will not worry they will hold the other two constituencies of Belfast !

  • Ryan A

    In fairness, 3/3 times she was the best known candidate.

    Any view on whether the Green vote will be squeezed here from March this time given the decisive role it might play in electing the winner?

    Must be a reasonable risk of votes being lent fairly evenly between SDLP/Alliance and maybe even SF in the case of a few voters?

    I fully expect a rerun of 2015 here, more or less.

  • Gaygael

    That’s fair enough.

    I have a sense the Green vote will be up on 2015’s share of 5.7%. It was exactly the same scenario the last time out. Yet Bailey managed to pull in even more votes and score the highest score for a Green in a Westie election. Admittedly, I haven’t been as involved and been busy in another part of the city.
    I don’t know if all those 4,200 odd voters from earlier this year will stay Green but our voters tend to stay Green once the come Green. That difference between the 5.7% in 2015 and the 9.9% earlier this year is the key to South Belfast. I think the Doc is too repellent and Ive a hunch it will go to Pengelley.

  • Ryan A

    It’s interesting. On the doors I’ve come across SDLP switchers to both SF and Alliance and equally I’ve had friends not involved in politics but normally Alliance voters say they will back McDonnell this time. It’s going to be a count worth watching!