In Belfast South, Remainers prepare to strike back against the DUP

The SDLP must win fights on two fronts in Northern Ireland's most diverse constituency.

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It is sometimes said that Belfast South is the closest thing in Northern Ireland to a parliamentary seat you could conceivably find in Great Britain: largely affluent, religiously mixed, and home to a large university and student population. In 2016 it voted for EU membership with unsurprising and overwhelming enthusiasm: 70 per cent backed Remain. Its leafier streets and modish coffee shops are more redolent of Crouch End than Ballymena. In short, it is the last place a visitor would expect to find a DUP MP.

Yet in 2017, voters in South Belfast elected just that. Or at least 30 per cent of them did. Most of the other 70 consider it a fate entirely unbefitting of the most diverse constituency in Northern Ireland. It is the only one of Stormont’s 18 constituencies to be represented by assembly members from five separate parties and has always been at the vanguard of liberal thinking, electing Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and latterly the Greens. 

At Westminster, however, it is a rather different story. For decades this seat’s wealthier neighbourhoods were a bastion of big house unionism. That unbroken period of dominance by the Ulster Unionists ended in 2005, when Alasdair McDonnell of the moderate nationalist SDLP narrowly pipped the DUP. 

By 2017, much had changed, not least Brexit. The constituency contains greater multitudes than the local stereotype for trendy gentility lets on and is as such hard to pigeonhole. With the Remain vote split four ways between McDonnell, an avuncular but divisive former GP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, and the Greens, the DUP crept through and gained its third and most incongruous seat in Belfast (talks over an electoral pact foundered before they even began, partly because of McDonnell’s presence on the ballot). Inimical as it seemed to the proudly pluralist identity of much of her constituency, so began the reign of Emma Little-Pengelly, who faces an uphill but not unassailable struggle to return. 

Why? In short, because what one might loosely call the parties of Remain have learned from their mistakes. Well, more accurately, three of them have. The SDLP has replaced McDonnell, whose pro-life politics were a source of not inconsiderable unease on the doorsteps here last time, with Claire Hanna. Consensus is an elusive thing in Belfast politics, but few would disagree that Hanna is the strongest media performer in a party whose star power has waned considerably in recent years.

With the SDLP having already taken the unprecedented move to stand aside in North Belfast, where Sinn Féin could well unseat the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, their republican rivals responded in kind. The Greens followed suit: their leader, Claire Bailey, signed Hanna’s nomination papers (her posters promise decisive action on climate change). Together their vote well exceeds Little-Pengelly’s – on paper, at least. Hanna, South Belfast to her bones, ought to be pushing against an open door. Though the near-collapse of Northern Ireland’s health service and the absence of devolution dominate conversations on the doorstep, this race will be won and lost on Brexit. More voters here in South Belfast, some 16,000, signed the parliamentary petition demanding the revocation of Article 50 than voted for Little-Pengelly in 2017. 

It is the sort of electoral cooperation in the name of a greater good that Remainers in England would kill for. Little-Pengelly's leaflets accuse nationalists of having "colluded" to steal the seat from unionism. For some voters, the circumstances have left a similarly sour taste. “Hanna had my tactical vote before this announcement,” one disgruntled Queen’s lecturer, a Remainer from a liberal unionist background, vented to me in private on the day the SDLP pulled out of North Belfast. “She’s just lost it.”

It is a common criticism, or at least it was at the start of the campaign. The electoral pact – not that Hanna and the SDLP call it that – has been criticised as tribal, not least by Alliance, who cleaned up here in May’s local elections. Its candidate, local MLA Paula Bradshaw, did not budge. Her party believes that the arrangements are a regression to the politics of sectarian headcounts and is betting that voters here agree with them. 

“The media have got so excited about headcount politics, putting the Sinn Fein vote on top of the SDLP vote,” Bradshaw, who came a competitive but not terribly close third in 2017, told me ahead of a Saturday afternoon canvassing session in the Markets, a nationalist estate. It is drizzly and Bradshaw, seeking refuge under an umbrella, admits this is hardly a happy hunting ground for supporters of cross-community politics. 

Yet the 47-year-old is upbeat. She says Green voters, of whom there were 2,241 in 2017, are turned off by the pact. “The truth of the matter is, when we’re going round we pick up voters from right across the political spectrum. I find it very hard to believe that [Hanna or Little-Pengelly] will be able to do the same,” Bradshaw says. She believes Aontú, a new pro-life party, will hurt the SDLP among its older, observant Catholic base and gives short shrift to the argument that she cannot win. “A lot of the media live in South Belfast – it suits them to try and create this narrative, and it really has been very disappointing actually.”

SDLP activists grumble that a split Remain vote and five more years of Little-Pengelly, who did not respond to requests for an interview, would be rather more disappointing. Over a salad on the Ormeau Road – the scene of ugly sectarian clashes and several killings during the Troubles – Hanna, who is confident but not complacent, rails against the “injustice” of her home constituency having a Brexiteer “so far removed from what people here want” for an MP.

“I think it has really poked them in the eye, frankly,” she says of her prospective constituents. “The DUP hasn’t been passively Brexit, but actively Brexit. There’s a sense of waste. It was the DUP who championed and sold a pup, and then after that used the power that they had in Westminster, which they could have used really well. They could have delivered the backstop, which was fairly popular – even if those of us who are Remainer purists struggled with it. Particularly at the point we’re at now: people feel the DUP cheated them out of it.”

At the very beginning of Little-Pengelly's term, she insisted that residents in a mixed housing development did not “want a fuss” over loyalist paramilitary flags hanging from lamposts. When a similar row re-erupted this July, she said she had “no time” for such displays. But Hanna cites the first episode as evidence for the prosecution. “The DUP is only speaking to its base here,” she says. “People are very, very motivated for that not to be the case anymore.” Bradshaw agrees: “I think they have brought shame on us," she says.

Hanna’s is an appeal to the constituency’s sense of self. "The point, I think, in South Belfast is that there is genuinely diversity. It isn't a milky shade of brown. You do have people with their very firmly held beliefs on different spectrums – left, right, green, orange, but we can all rub along together. Even on flags there's a way of rubbing along together. But I suppose it was Pengelly's dismissal of concerns about them that really upset people.”

What, then, is her message to those who believe the ad hoc coalition of parties supporting her is a tribal pact with a fluffy PR operation? “First of all, there isn’t a pact, there are unilateral arrangements. People see that Brexit is the clear and present threat, that we did it a different way in 2017, and that we woke up with 10 extreme Brexit MPs. The motivation to stop that has to be the key… It is about something very, very different. It’s about Remain, and the breadth of that, and it isn’t a sectarian issue.”

A raft of pro-EU campaigning organisations agree with her analysis, and have endorsed her – as has Keir Starmer. Bradshaw, unsurprisingly, does not. “The pact is not going down well universally, and we’re still in with a good chance,” she tells me. Whatever happens, Alliance believes that there is no chance of a DUP MP returning, and has said so in Facebook adverts that have infuriated its rivals.

“The unionist vote has seriously declined in South Belfast, and I don’t think that Emma is going to win,” Bradshaw explains. “The Leave vote is 30 per cent. Emma got 30 per cent in the last election. She is going to lose ground on that. You don’t win from about 27 per cent. There’s going to be at least 70 per cent split between me and Claire. If we split it right down the centre, then one of us is going to get ahead.

"Look, it’s a nonsense, and in many ways it suits the SDLP to make people think Emma’s going to slip through the middle. There’s just not the votes there. The unionist vote is not there, and quite a lot of it is coming to us."

If Hanna is to succeed, she must dispel the consensus and ensure the Remain vote coalesces around her. The last time the SDLP won here, it did so with only 24.5 per cent of the vote – the lowest winning tally of any Westminster candidate. With a Remain vote cleaved in two, Pengelly – whose vote is reasonably sticky despite the presence of a UUP candidate – they fear Pengelly could pull off a similar feat.

So what does Hanna say to those flirting with Alliance? “I say that I can win. I believe very firmly that I can win. I'm a politician of the centre-ground, and I work in the common ground, and I've done that for all of my 28 years in public service. If somebody can find something that I've done that’s tribal or sectarian, I’ll vote for them myself!” 

It is difficult to argue with. Hanna arrived at her candidacy via a funny route. In February, in lieu of a long-mooted merger, the SDLP bafflingly announced a policy partnership with the Republic’s Fianna Fail – the deep green party of seamy scandal, irredentism and the financial crash – she resigned both the whip and her position as Brexit spokesperson, complaining that the move (all but forgotten now) was at odds with her vision for a "non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland". 

Ten months on, councillors from all over the Republic – as well as UK Labour activists – are reinforcing Hanna’s campaign, which has been effectively endorsed by Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael taoiseach. All’s well that ends well. 

She sets out her message to those considering a vote for Bradshaw. “I’m rooted in the community, and I know Brexit inside out. That sounds arrogant, but I have been developing arguments and building alliances and contacts on Brexit since before the referendum in 2016.

"Voting Alliance is a very honourable thing to do with your vote, but I don't think that you'll find a massive divergence with me and your values, except I don't believe it's sectarian to have a constitutional viewpoint, so long as it doesn't infect and dominate everything you do politically.”

In some quarters, however, it very much has. Anonymously-hung banners, thought to be the work of loyalist paramilitaries, have asked whether Sean Kelly, the IRA terrorist convicted of the 1993 Shankill bomb, which killed nine Protestant civilians, will be canvassing for Hanna as he has done for Sinn Féin in North Belfast (Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP chief whip, asked the same. Ironically, it was not a given that the seat’s 7,143 Sinn Féin voters would beat a path to her door: in May’s European elections, they mostly plumped for Naomi Long, the Alliance leader, over the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood. Any worries the campaign might have had on that front have largely been dispelled by their evenings and weekends on the doors.

Some believe their job has been made easier by Bradshaw, whose past is as much a source of mirth as political capital to her rivals. A former Ulster Unionist, in 2010 she ran on a joint Conservative-UUP ticket – an ill-fated electoral alliance that died an embarrassing death. 

“I was never a Conservative,” she shoots back. “I was always an Ulster Unionist. In many ways, it’s quite sectarian. I left the party because it didn’t work, and in many ways I don’t agree with their policies. At every single election since then, my vote has gone up. Look, the truth of the matter is that my vote is holding. I know that is holding because I work so hard.” 

Bradshaw says her canvass returns are punctuated with as many Ps – for “Paula” – as As, for Alliance. “No other candidate in the field can even remotely come close to that,” she stresses. “So of course they’re going to scramble to find something from nine years ago to try and attack me on.”

With the brute force of electoral arithmetic on her side, one wonders if Hanna needs to. Young voters here have certainly flocked to her cause. Tara-Grace Connolly, 22, is from a nationalist family but forms one of a new generation of floating voters unbidden by old allegiances. 

A masters student at Queen’s - where Sinn Féin dominates the campus political scene – her ultimate objective is to replace her DUP MP with a Remainer. “There’s no party in this region that I agree with 100 per cent,” she tells me over a coffee on the edge of the city centre. “But that seat is overwhelmingly for Remain, and we have the opposite of that for an MP. You have to put principles about certain issues aside, though it’s depressing, and think about the long term.”

Connolly is nonetheless wary of the pact that could secure the seat for Hanna. “I was always very against the idea of pacts. It’s not a great precedent to set,” she admits, citing the “horrific” Alliance’s Naomi Long had at the hands of a unionist tie-up in East Belfast in 2015. There is a but coming. “But this is an extraordinary election. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. There’s so much in contention in this region that pacts are a necessary evil.” She hopes, as many in the SDLP do privately, that they do not become the default.

So how will she vote? In 2017, Connolly held her nose and voted for Alasdair McDonnell, with little enthusiasm. In intervening elections she has gone Green. This time she and her peers will vote for Hanna, who she believes has a “unique ability to transcend the constitutional question” and, more bluntly, her increasingly unfashionable party label. 

She insists that Our Future Our Choice, the anti-Brexit youth campaign she helps lead, would have endorsed Hanna regardless of which party banner she chose to run under. They have given Sinn Féin, the UUP, and Alliance the nod elsewhere. “She’s the best candidate,” Connolly says of Hanna. “She just happens to be in the SDLP.” Observers in search of an explanation as to why constitutional nationalism is set for an unlikely return to Westminster next week would be well-served to remember that truth.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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