Show Hide image

In North Belfast, an old struggle has a new face. Can the DUP hold on?

Aided by a Remain alliance, Sinn Féin is fighting to unseat Nigel Dodds, the leader of the DUP in Westminster, in a fierce contest that poses existential questions for every one of Northern Ireland's main parties.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

“It’s a real head-scratcher, so it is.” Olcán McSparron, 22, wonders aloud how he might cast his ballot on 12 December. This week’s election will be the eighth McSparron, a history and politics undergraduate, has voted in since gaining the franchise in 2015. Home is the Cavehill Road, a predominantly nationalist pocket of North Belfast. For the past 18 years, Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Party’s leader in Westminster, has been his MP. 

McSparron, nursing an americano in a cafe on Belfast’s Royal Avenue, struggles to remember exactly how he voted in the Westminster election of 2017, when Dodds won a narrow majority of 2,081 over Sinn Féin. His reticence isn’t a product of shame or embarrassment but genuine uncertainty: Theresa May’s failed gamble came just three months after a snap election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Local and European elections followed – just three weeks apart – in May this year. 

The overload of democracy means McSparron is well accustomed to voting, but seldom under first-past-the-post. Every other election in Northern Ireland is conducted via the single transferable vote, which sees voters rank candidates in order of preference: as the joke goes in Belfast, you vote until you boke – the Northern Irish slang for vomit. On those occasions, his first preference usually goes to Alliance, Northern Ireland’s biggest cross-community party, or the moderate nationalist SDLP. Next Thursday, however, the latter will not be on the ballot. And so the head-scratching begins. 

McSparron and other voters in North Belfast will have a choice of just three candidates on 12 December: Dodds, Sinn Féin’s John Finucane, and Alliance’s Nuala McAllister. All three are lawyers who have served as Lord Mayor of Belfast –Finucane is the incumbent – but that is where the similarities end. McAllister strikes the obligatory notes about being in it to win it, but it is really a two-horse race between the DUP and Sinn Féin. 

Remainers, scarred by the consequences of their failure to cooperate electorally in 2017, have brokered electoral pacts in three Belfast constituencies – not that they call them pacts (instead, both the SDLP and Sinn Féin insist their withdrawals were unilateral decisions). The express aim is to unseat the DUP, which has three MPs out of four in this Remain city. In North Belfast, Finucane is best-placed to do it. Both the SDLP and Greens, who between them won around 2,500 votes in 2017, stood aside accordingly. The arrangement poses existential questions for everyone. The Ulster Unionist Party had intended to run – a sign of intent from their new leader, Steve Aiken, that the DUP would be held to account over Brexit and the collapse of devolution - but later withdrew. UUP staff are said to have been threatened by loyalist paramilitaries. 

For the SDLP - the party of John Hume, as Dodds later reminds me - it is an unprecedented gesture. As constitutional nationalists, they always abhorred the violence of the IRA and reject abstentionism, albeit with increasingly little gratitude from the electorate. Alliance rejected entreaties to take part, complaining of a regression to the politics of sectarian headcounts. Loyalist groups share their analysis, injecting additional rancour into an already grim race. But Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, justifies the decision with a one-liner whose niftiness belies the gravity of his choice: “I would rather have John Finucane sitting in the house than Nigel Dodds sitting in the House of Commons.”

If Finucane is to win, he must convince voters like McSparron, who did not back him last time, to lend him their votes in the name of unseating Dodds, no Paisleyite bogeyman but nonetheless an "architect of Brexit" as far as the nationalist parties are concerned. He needs people who would never countenance voting for Sinn Féin in ordinary times to see this election as Eastwood does: a contest between Leave and Remain, rather than orange and green. And so Remain voters scratch their heads. “The vision of Brexit Dodds wants to pursue is not representative of nationalism, and, I’d have to say, large swathes of unionism too,” McSparron told me, ruffling his mop of black hair illustratively. “But I’ve got a real problem with this election.”

“I don’t want Dodds to get into power. I do realise that a vote for Finucane gets Dodds out,” he added. “But he’s not going to be a representative in the Commons for this seat. So you just can’t vote to get someone out.” And that, before one even considers the weight of history, is the nub of the issue. Swing voters in North Belfast are being asked to replace one MP who does not represent them on Brexit for another who will not represent them in the Commons chamber. It is arguably an election defined by negatives. Which is least worst?

***

Unsurprisingly, Finucane – a 39-year-old solicitor – rejects the premise of the question. “I think there’s a dynamic in this election that is very unique,” he put it to me when we met for a cup of tea at the Duncairn Arts Centre, a converted Presbyterian Church, on a recent Saturday night (a choice of venue whose symbolism writes Finucane’s pitch for him). 

That is one way of putting it. Finucane was talking about the fraying of party allegiances, but could have just as easily been referring to the vicious campaign being waged on walls across the constituency, where banners attacking his family were hung last month. 

The Finucane name is famous here. John’s father, Pat, was a human rights lawyer murdered in 1989 by loyalist paramilitaries working in collusion with British security forces (in profile, at least, there is a striking resemblance). He was shot 14 times as his family – including John, then aged just eight – ate Sunday dinner in their home, about a mile from the Duncairn. Similar banners have been erected attacking the SDLP in South Belfast, and Alliance in East Belfast.

Finucane has not responded in kind. “I don’t think it’s representative of unionism,” he says. “It’s not a style of campaigning or politics that I would be comfortable with. People should judge me on my politics, on the message that I’m bringing, on my track record. I don’t wish to refight old battles, or use politics as a way of inflicting hurt on somebody else – no matter what the circumstances.”

As a relative newcomer to electoral politics, Finucane – who only joined Sinn Féin in the weeks before the 2017 election – has an obvious advantage: there is little by way of a track record to judge. He has only been a councillor since May, having been immediately nominated for mayor. Mild embarrassment came after it emerged last month that he had been cautioned by police for urinating in a city centre alleyway in June (a lapse of judgement for which he has apologised), but the story really served to illustrate the extent to which Finucane’s skin, politically speaking at least, is clean.

So when one asks a wavering voter whether they could support Finucane, most give a variation on the same answer: “Well, he’s no Gerry Kelly.” Even Dodds agrees. Kelly, a local MLA who ran for Sinn Féin at every general election from 1997 to 2015, is a convicted IRA bomber. David McCann, an academic, political commentator and lifelong North Belfast voter, tells me over a pint at the John Hewitt, a city centre pub in the southernmost corner of the constituency – where one is more likely to see rainbow flags than Union Jacks – that Kelly had a “natural ceiling”, for obvious reasons. 

Finucane smashed through it in 2017. He may do so again if the conversation at McCann’s weekly park run is anything to go by. McCann himself does not know how he will vote and is strikingly hesitant when considering the question. But he has been “astonished” to learn just how many of his circle of acquaintances – very few of them Sinn Féin supporters – were voting for Finucane. Unthinkable and unpalatable though many find will find the prospect this time, a vote for him is rather easier to rationalise – or excuse.

Finucane knows this, of course. If he is to win, then it is the middle classes he must convince. “North Belfast is a patchwork quilt of a constituency,” he says. “There’s such a broad mix. But I think that people voted for Sinn Féin in 2017 who perhaps hadn’t voted for Sinn Féin before. I’m very conscious of the fact that in this election, I’m effectively asking people to stretch themselves. I’m asking them to vote for me, and I’m not just cognisant of that, I’m grateful for that.” 

His candidacy will only succeed if he manages to convince voters that he really is an exceptional candidate in an exceptional election. Europe, he says, has changed the constituency for the better: around the corner is the old Girdwood barracks, converted into a community sports centre with EU money. He also cites his legal background and mayoralty as evidence in his defence. “On day one [of my mayoralty] I welcomed Prince Charles into the city centre to open the new Primark,” he says, chuckling. “That's maybe a slightly surreal sentence.” 

Perhaps. But such vignettes all serve an argument nobody is quite prepared to make explicitly: that Finucane might just allow voters to convince themselves that they aren’t really voting for Sinn Féin, or at least the Sinn Féin of Gerry Kelly. Old, all too familiar faces still loom large, however: Sean Kelly, reviled by unionists for his role in the bombing of a Shankill Road fish and chip shop that killed nine Protestant civilians in 1993, is part of Finucane’s canvassing team.

He nonetheless hopes to dispel fears. “Does voting for me mean they become Sinn Féin voters and supporters? Of course not,” he says of the SDLP and Green voters he needs to win over. “They see this election for what it is. It’s about maximising that Remain voice… If party-political ego got in the way of returning a Remain candidate, then I think that voters would rightly be unforgiving.”

And there is the sell. As billboards across the constituency tell you, this election is less about Finucane (shown fresh-faced and in technicolour) than Dodds (rendered in miserable monochrome). Reeling off the problems facing North Belfast – housing, suicide, anti-social behaviour, knife crime – Finucane derides him as an “absentee landlord”. An unsympathetic listener might think a little rich coming from someone who aspires to go to Westminster as an absentee tenant. 

“The two major political moments of my lifetime would be the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit,” he says. “Nigel Dodds was on the wrong side of history on both.” Finucane’s gamble is that enough voters agree.

But what of the consequences? He insists that, as the child of a mixed marriage, he can reassure unionists that a Sinn Féin victory here will not be spun as a rejection of the union itself. “I don’t intend to live my political life by poking my neighbour in the eye,” he says. The trouble, perhaps, is that many loyalists will inevitably read his victory that way. 

***

 

It is 18 years since Dodds was returned to Westminster for the first time. In 2001 he replaced Cecil Walker, a veteran Ulster Unionist himself in his eighteenth year as an MP. Walker was 76 at the time and, despite his advancing age, stood to defend his seat once more. It would not be easy: the Good Friday Agreement, which Walker and his much-maligned leader David Trimble supported, had divided unionism. Dodds and the DUP, unlike Walker, opposed the accord. Noisily so.

The unworldly Walker sealed his fate on live television. Facing his rivals in a debate at Crumlin Road courthouse – where some of the most notorious perpetrators of Troubles violence, including Sean Kelly, had faced justice – he struggled and stumbled, unable to answer or even comprehend the most basic questions put to him. Walker had never been known for his articulacy in debate at Westminster, where he was an infrequent presence, and blamed a faulty hearing aid. 

Walker’s disastrous turn was nonetheless symbolic of what the UUP had become in the eyes of its electorate in places Belfast North: doddery, oblivious, out of touch. In the event, he lost, and lost badly. His 13,000 majority evaporated. The UUP tumbled from first place to fourth. Dodds, then 43, would later pay fulsome tribute to Walker, whose tenure coincided with some of the grimmest violence of the Troubles, in his maiden speech. But his victory was in the old man’s humiliation. 

One naturally wonders if Dodds, 61, will go the same way: swept aside by a realigning tide. But he is optimistic. “There’s a lot of positivity about,” he told me when we met in his constituency office on the unionist Shore Road, with good luck cards sitting atop his filing cabinet, before a Saturday morning canvassing session. “Despite all the challenges and negativity in the run-up to the election, I find on the doorsteps that people are very, very positive about getting out to vote.” 

Turnout will indeed be key: nearly 4,000 people have become eligible to vote since 2017. “The aim of the game,” says David McCann, “will be getting the base out.” Has the Remain pact energised voters? “I think it has certainly done that on the unionist side,” Dodds says, noting the “steely resolve” of the unionist electorate. “Colum Eastwood’s complete U-turn – and it is effectively seen by people here in Belfast as a grubby, sectarian little pact – totally contradicted everything that he’d said about Sinn Fein, abstentionism and all of that. Designed entirely for party benefit. It’s not about Brexit. It’s all about knocking the DUP and unionists back – and people see that.”

He wants nationalist voters still unwilling to vote Sinn Fein to consider his parliamentary record – the same one that Finucane insists is the DUP’s Achilles heel.  “We have secured millions of pounds for mental health projects, for education, after-school projects, breakfast clubs, GP practices here in North Belfast – right across the board. People recognise on the ground that this isn’t just in unionist areas, this is right across North Belfast… You contrast that record of delivery with someone who is not going to go. People have seen over Brexit, even, if they’re concerned about that, that votes in the House of Commons do matter.” 

The events of the past two years mean that argument is trickier for the DUP to make than usual. Dodds insists that, among unionists, there is  “absolute determination to demonstrate where people stand on getting the Assembly up and running, protecting the union, making sure that there’s a government in the United Kingdom that isn’t going to do damage to Northern Ireland, and getting this Brexit deal sorted out”. 

Whether DUP MPs will be in a position to do so if the Tories win a majority is another question – one with an uncomfortable answer for Dodds and his electorate. Yet he does not worry. “I don’t worry about it, because there’s nothing that I can do. The figures are what they are. When the results are in, we will deal with whatever comes up. But I suspect strongly at this stage that the DUP’s votes will still be important in the next parliament.”

Nor, despite the fact that North Belfast is increasingly finely balanced demographically, does he believe his constituency is ready to elect an abstentionist republican. “I don’t pick up a great enthusiasm to elect somebody who’s not going to take their seat,” he says. “It doesn’t have that vibe about it. We’ll fight it strongly, obviously.”

But what might hurt Dodds is the sense that, for some of his supporters, fighting strongly means fighting ugly. He and the DUP have condemned the personal attacks on Finucane but they have put some waverers in a curious position: they have ended up feeling sorry for a Sinn Féin candidate. 

An unedifying sectarian row over local housing provision, which has seen Catholic families intimidated and in one case forced from their homes in social housing developments in unionist areas, has also come at a bad time for the DUP campaign. 

Dodds and the DUP have condemned both the banners and the attacks without equivocation. Some senior nationalists privately admit that part of the reason he has been branded “the architect of Brexit” is for want of anything egregious to say about him personally. Though mythologised by casual observers at Westminster as a joyless, unyielding figure, he is personable company and by no measure a bigot, whatever the broadsheet cartoonists might think. But his rivals hope voters will think the DUP guilty by association.

Dodds, for his part, does not believe the tone and tenor of the campaign is markedly worse than previous elections. “I’ve been in very tight contests before, and in very difficult circumstances,” he says. “These elections in Northern Ireland are hard-fought. People are on the doorsteps, they’re very passionate about the issues, there’s a lot of intensity about getting out to vote."

He draws the same contrast that some Remainers will in the quiet of the polling booth on 12 December. “I think it’d be wrong to overplay it as being particularly vicious. The campaigns are getting on with their campaigns, and they’re doing what they do. I don’t think it’s been any particularly worse than previous campaigns, particularly with Gerry Kelly in the field.” 

Like Finucane, Dodds experienced the violence of the Troubles all too personally: two days before Christmas in 1993, the IRA attempted to assassinate him as he visited his disabled son in hospital (the gunman missed, and a police officer was wounded). His rival declines to condemn the attack, as Sinn Fein candidates always do. “I have an issue with selective condemnation,” Finucane says. "I think it cheapens our past. I think it is a barrier to reconciliation… I know that the pain of the Troubles visited everybody, regardless of where they came from. I want that to be dealt with.”

***

Though both men believe they can win, it is Alliance’s Nuala McAllister who might well determine which of them does. Remainers and middle-class nationalists in the leafier, more mixed neighbourhoods that will call the result as much as those divided by peace walls – where differential turnout will instead be key – must decide whether their discomfort with Dodds and Brexit really demands such a drastic response. Some will inevitably settle for a vote for McAllister, even if it means Dodds returns. Others even whisper that they will vote for Dodds. But many are agonising over something that they never thought they would even consider: the private heresy of voting Sinn Fein. Brexit, we are told, has changed everything - but it is not making the decision any easier.

In the car from the Duncairn back into the city centre, I ask Finucane if he would put £50 on himself winning. He would. For both parties, however, the stakes are much higher.  Each insists, in its own way, that victory will mean business as usual for people here: Finucane in particular can do little else if he wants to win. But a Sinn Fein victory - and with it the first nationalist MP for North Belfast - would undeniably be a watershed moment with unpredictable consequences: be it on the loyalist estates, where tensions are already running high; at Stormont, where it might catalyse a return to power-sharing; or in Westminster. A DUP parliamentary party without Nigel Dodds at its helm? That really would be a head-scratcher. 

“I’ve represented North Belfast for 18 years now,” Dodds said as his small army of canvassers prepared to head out onto the Shore Road. But then so had Cecil Walker. Sinn Fein will find dislodging Dodds much harder than he found his first victory. Indeed, Dodds is confident that it will prove impossible. 

“It is a tight seat,” he said, glancing out at the drizzle. “It’s marginal. I’ve never considered moving away from North Belfast. I’ve never considered taking a different path, which would have been on offer – and perhaps easier. I love the North Belfast constituency, despite all of its challenges and difficulties and all it’s gone through, and the people. So, for me, I’m fighting this to win – and I’m very confident we’ll win it.”

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.