Adams (SF) 24,348 (70.5%)
Attwood (SDLP) 5,033 (14.6%)
Dodds (DUP) 3,652 (10.6%)
McGimpsey (UUP) 779 (2.3%)
Lowry (WP) 432 (1.3%)
Gilby (Dream Ticket) 154 (0.4%)
Kennedy (Ind) 147 (0.4%)
From the predictable Mid Ulster constituency, we move to the most predictable of them all. As Horseman points out, Paddy Power is offering odds of 1/750 on Gerry being returned, and I doubt if Vladimir Putin could get shorter odds than that.
The West Belfast constituency takes in the western quarter of the Belfast City Council area, plus the Twinbrook-Poleglass area which currently falls under Lisburn council but is basically an outgrowth of west Belfast, and is due to be joined to it if the local government reorganisation ever happens. It’s by far the most Catholic constituency, with the Protestant population being confined to the tiny Suffolk enclave and a few non-contiguous bits of the Shankill bolted on the north end; it’s also by far the poorest constituency. No surprise, then, that it’s monopolised by one party.
It’s possible to exaggerate the image of West Belfast of course. Some bits of Andersonstown are quite nice, although some other bits look like Fallujah. But the gentrification that’s often spoken of has never happened – upwardly-mobile Lower Falls people have moved to Andytown, while upwardly-mobile Andytown people have moved to south Belfast. Around 70% of children – and the population is very young – are born to unmarried mothers; and if single mothers with their kids are one obviously strong demographic, spides are another. The area has serious long-term problems with unemployment, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour and teen suicide, to name a few issues.
Of course, this is Gerry’s kingdom. In 2005 he scored the highest percentage vote for any candidate in the north, and one of the highest in the House of Commons. In 2007 Sinn Féin came in at just under 70% of the poll, and managed to take five Assembly seats out of six, thanks to some spectacular vote management. There’s been speculation that Gerry might see his vote dip this time, but I can’t see it doing so significantly. The revelations about the Adams family before Christmas, and still extant questions about Gerry’s actions or lack thereof, have tarnished the personality cult a little but the effect on Gerry’s vote will be approximately zero. Likewise, the much anticipated revelations in the Dark’s book – basically, that Gerry was in the IRA after all and that he isn’t a very nice man – will have been largely discounted in advance, and really don’t tell us much except who was Ed Moloney’s source for some stories that were already in the public domain. No, the only thing that might hurt Teflon Gerry is if the punters start reading his Huck Finn-style blog, especially when he chooses to regale us with his beat poetry; realistically, apathy is his main enemy.
He’s helped by the fact that there really isn’t an opposition. Well, there’s Alex Attwood… but the SDLP has really been on its last legs here since Joe Hendron retired. One problem is that Joe pulled in a massive tactical vote from the Shankill to beat Gerry, which actually succeeded in 1992 – but go to 1997 and you can see the extent of the tactical vote. Joe pulled in 39% in the Westminster poll, with the UUP trailing on 3%; in the 1997 local elections, the SDLP scored a mere 17%, less than the combined unionist score. Since then, the party has slumped even further, and in the 2007 Stormont election was on a mere 12.2% and in serious danger of losing its Assembly seat.
Another problem is that of people. It’s not just that the SDLP voting base tends to be quite elderly; it’s not just that the party has no organisation to speak of in West Belfast; it’s also a problem of Alex Attwood not being Joe Hendron. Joe could get away with being MP for West Belfast while living in south Belfast, because Joe’s immense warmth and charm could help him get away with a lot. I think the SDLP missed a trick in not nominating Margaret Walsh, their last councillor on the Lower Falls, to replace him. Margaret would not only have been a very personable candidate, but someone who actually lived on the Falls Road. Wee Alex has never really been well liked about West Belfast, to be honest; he’s always had the air of an outsider. Some unkind souls have suggested that he’s just putting in his time in West Belfast until Alasdair McDonnell drops dead and he can have a run at South Belfast; I prefer to give Alex the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s on some weird masochistic kick. Although if his vote sinks much further, he’s toast come the Assembly election.
Candidates aside, nobody has managed to put together a narrative that might challenge Gerry. A couple of years back, Andersonstown News columnist “Squinter” took Gerry to task for his failure to deliver jobs to the area, but that quickly petered out, while the combination of the peace process grantocracy and an enormous black economy helps cushion the area’s deprivation, so the economic argument becomes one between SF’s crony capitalism and the SDLP’s capitalism under the rule of law – you can guess which is more popular. Likewise, there’s an ongoing problem with crime and anti-social behaviour, notably in Gerry’s own Ballymurphy bailiwick, but where is a populist “smash the hoods” campaign going to come from? One could see the IRSP or RSF chancing their arm with that sort of thing, but it just isn’t compatible with the SDLP’s love of all things human rights.
As it is, there’s no competition from outside the mainstream this time. There is no dissident candidate, no Workers Party candidate for the first time in living memory, no People Before Profit candidate. Alliance regularly score their lowest vote in the north in this constituency. There’s some interest on the unionist side to see whether Shankill councillor William Humphrey can sustain the DUP’s dominance in the absence of Diane Dodds MEP, or whether UCUNF candidate Bill Manwaring can pull something back for the Officials. Bill is a strong supporter of the Tory link, but it’s hard to think of a worse constituency to be a Tory candidate. Again, watch the percentages. There should be a unionist quota there for the Assembly election, though they’ve had trouble in the past with both differential turnout and vote-shredding; there’s also a school of thought in SF that wouldn’t mind the Shankill getting that Assembly seat back, at least if it takes out Attwood.
Don’t even bother putting a bet on this one. West Belfast is a one-party state, is so by popular demand, and that’s not changing any time soon.