View from Belfast South: the battle for the most diverse seat in Northern Ireland

Can a hardline Brexiteer take Belfast's most moderate, trendy seat? 

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Nowhere in Northern Ireland is quite like South Belfast. An island of pluralism in a city still largely divided along sectarian lines, swathes of this leafy, prosperous marginal, have more in common with London’s Crouch End than Ballymena. But for a few pockets of deprivation, this is the solidly middle-class home of Belfast’s chattering classes.

Yet despite its two universities, reputation for trendy gentility, and 69.5 per cent vote to remain in the EU, Northern Ireland’s most diverse constituency may be on course to elect an MP from Ian Paisley’s Brexit-backing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for the first time. Incumbent MP Alasdair McDonnell, of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), is defending a majority of just 906 over the DUP, with the cross-community Alliance third. McDonnell’s winning vote share in 2015 – just 24.5 per cent – was the lowest of any MP ever.

Though Northern Ireland’s sole pollster LucidTalk gives McDonnell a 65 per cent chance of holding on, his electorate is divided. The equivalent Stormont assembly constituency is represented by five different parties. But moves to shore up the SDLP’s hold on the seat with an anti-Brexit electoral alliance with Sinn Fein, the Greens and the Alliance Party quickly broke down. Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill said this would “almost certainly” hand seats such as Belfast South to “pro-Brexit hardliners”.

The DUP is serious about winning the seat: former Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson is managing its campaign. But the biggest threat to a victory for McDonnell – an avowed Remainer – is the other pro-Europe parties, which are all running energetic campaigns with well-known candidates. Indeed, some SDLP activists grumble that Alliance would sooner see themselves finish a strong second to the DUP in Belfast South than see McDonnell win.

Alliance’s candidate, local assembly member Paula Bradshaw, says the contest is bigger than Brexit. Talks over a progressive alliance collapsed in part due to McDonnell’s perceived “social conservatism” – he is, in his own words, “robustly pro-life” – which Bradshaw believes could hand her victory. Hers is a pitch to what she sees as a growing centre ground unmoved by Ulster’s politics of old. “A lot of people live here because it’s not a sectarian silo,” she told me ahead of an early-morning canvassing session. “This is probably the constituency most supportive of same-sex marriage or a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. It’s really up to Alasdair to explain why he would deny those rights.”

Her charge isn’t entirely fair – McDonnell says he is pro-equality and voted in favour of same-sex marriage both in Westminster in 2013 and at Stormont in 2015 – but, to a certain extent, it has stuck, particularly among the constituency’s sizeable student population. “The younger generation don’t see that as something that should be up for debate any more,” said Queen’s undergraduate Ciara Cooney, 19. “McDonnell’s stance is definitely a deal-breaker”. Rival campaigners say the issue regularly comes up unprompted on the doorstep.

But having won the seat from the Ulster Unionists against the odds in 2005, McDonnell nonetheless maintains a large and fiercely loyal support base. Over a pot of tea at his handsome detached home, the avuncular former GP rubbishes his rivals’ attempts to turn the campaign into a referendum on his character. “Of course, they have to swipe at me on trivial things,” he says. “They’re not gonna win.” Like many an MP in a marginal seat, he believes that some give insufficient due to his local record. “Promises are all great, but people want delivery. If I wasn’t successful, they wouldn’t be attacking me.”

Like many here, McDonnell believes that the contest is a two-horse race between himself and his DUP rival, Emma Little Pengelly. A former special adviser to Ian Paisley, she is of a political generation often criticised by older hands at Stormont. Having lost her assembly seat in March, Pengelly continues to divide opinion locally. Her defenestration is still a source of mirth for rivals, not least because of an ill-tempered series of tweets that followed, which infamously included a selfie in her barrister’s wig. She is likely to be helped, however, by an almost imperceptible Ulster Unionist Party campaign and Ukip’s decision not to run (the party won 1,900 votes in 2015).

A Pengelly victory would be a remarkable coup for the DUP – who, having backed Brexit against the wishes of the Northern Irish public, presided over the collapse of the Northern Irish executive and came perilously close to losing March’s assembly election to Sinn Fein. Progressive tactical voting for McDonnell is probably the only thing that will stop them here.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

This article appears in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning