Know your constituency: West Belfast

2005 result:
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%)

2010 candidates: Gerry Adams (SF), Alex Attwood (SDLP), Máire Hendron (Alliance), William Humphrey (DUP), Bill Manwaring (UCUNF)

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.


  1. April 27, 2010 at 8:41 am

    no TUV candidate?

  2. Garibaldy said,

    April 27, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    No WP candidate, and still the Korean poster? I’m shocked, SS. Shocked.

    • slug said,

      April 27, 2010 at 7:29 pm

      Its surprising SDLP don’t try harder here. After all lots of voters and surely not all can be so happy. Where is the opposition.

      • Liam McMillan said,

        April 27, 2010 at 11:14 pm

        the sdlp are a joke, simple as.

  3. April 27, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    I saw a copy of ‘West Belfast Sinn Fein News’ , one of those freesheet newspapers parties produce at election time.
    It was sizeable enough at 20 pages but I couldn’t believe it when I noticed that it had ads in it.
    Not just for various Easter commemorations but ads for Restaurants, pubs, clubs, chippers,print design, photographers, cab companys, car dealers and even one for a property management company.
    I think thats an illustration as to how dominant Sinn Fein are here.

    • Ciarán said,

      May 4, 2010 at 1:35 pm

      It isn’t only produced at election time. The West Belfast SF paper is published on a quarterly basis if I recall correctly.

  4. Liam said,

    April 28, 2010 at 8:52 am

    An advert for a property management company? How apt when you consider the amount of Provie sub letting of Housing Executive properties.

  5. Liam McMillan said,

    April 28, 2010 at 9:17 am

    so you remove posts for highlighting the continued drug dealing of the official IRA the workers party armed gang of thugs?

    • Garibaldy said,

      April 28, 2010 at 10:16 am

      I guess you had to attract the odd nutter eventually SS. But it was all going so well.

  6. slug said,

    April 28, 2010 at 10:54 am

    It seems impossible for a party to have 5 of 6 seats in an STV election. How can an electorate be so same-minded?

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      April 28, 2010 at 5:42 pm

      Just look at the council results for the Lower Falls electoral area – five seats out of five. And four out of five in Upper Falls.

      • April 28, 2010 at 5:48 pm

        definitely not North Korean, Kim’s party always wins 100% after hard campaining ;-(

    • weserei said,

      April 28, 2010 at 10:22 pm

      It’s actually pretty common in areas with low social development, especially when there’s an ethnic/racial/religious barrier involved. There are congressional seats in the US (for instance, in the poorer areas of New York City) where the Democrats consistently get upwards of 90% of the vote.

      • slug said,

        April 29, 2010 at 1:54 am

        That’s interesting. But does NYC use STV mulitmember

        Perhaps it is a sign of deprivation. Though I would have thought that in deprived constituencies there would be a range of candidates.

      • weserei said,

        May 4, 2010 at 3:39 pm

        It’s all first-past-the-post in New York. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much difference electoral systems actually make. We don’t see radically different results in Westminster and Stormont elections within the same constituencies.

  7. John Meehan said,

    April 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    I agree that Gerry Adams is home and dry and there is no sign of principled left opposition – which is depressing considering the following Eamonn McCann Hot Press commentary on double standards about child abuse allegations :

    “About Adams Hot Press March 4 2010

    There appears to be a double-standard at work in the press coverage of the Bishop Martin Drennan and Gerry Adams stories.

    Bishop Martin Drennan must wonder whether he would not have been better to join the Provos rather than the priesthood.

    Drennan was among 24 Irish bishops airlifted to Rome on February 13th for a PR meeting with the pope on child sex abuse by clergy. On the previous evening, the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had been asked on The Late Late Show about his handling of sex abuse allegations against his brother.

    The Galway bishop returned to a renewed clamour for his resignation. Abuse survivor Andrew Madden said that Church claims to have learnt lessons from the Murphy Report would sound “very hollow” if Drennan didn’t step down.

    There is no accusation that Drennan colluded in child abuse or personally helped to shield perpetrators. What’s suggested is that, during his tenure as an auxiliary bishop in Dublin – September 1997 to July 2005 – allegations emerged which he ought to have known of, but about which he did nothing.

    One notorious abuser served at the National Rehabilitation Institute in Dún Laoghaire – within Drennan’s area of responsibility – up to July 1998. Either he was culpably ignorant or shamefully unconcerned, say survivors. Either way, he should go.

    Gerry Adams, on the other hand, doesn’t deny that he was told by his niece, Áine, in 1987 that as a child she’d repeatedly been raped by her father, Liam, the brother of Gerry Adams. The SF leader says that he believed her. But his story from that point conflicts both with Áine’s account and with facts subsequently unearthed by Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune. For example, Mr. Adams says that he offered to accompany Áine to report the abuse to the RUC. She says he didn’t. He says he immediately disowned his brother and then had him “dumped” from Sinn Féin. The Tribune published photographs of the brothers seemingly at ease together at Liam’s second wedding and canvassing together for Sinn Féin during the period when the SF president says they were estranged.

    There is no comparable accusation against Dr. Drennan, nor has any statement by him been undermined by subsequent revelations.

    Thus, a Roman Catholic bishop has been given a much harder time on a matter of child sex abuse than a political leader who would appear to have more serious and specific questions to answer. Strange times.”

  8. I$NI In Blog we Trust said,

    April 28, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    @ SS Had hoped to do my own research into this area and apreciate your not using the term gentrification I would have looked more to Neil Smith’s concept of revanchism with the commodification of culture that is happening around the Gaoltacht Quarter being promoted by the BMG in their City of Quarters

    @ Garibaldy + Liam Mac Uaid The Koreans have the right idea regarding property. You could see the parralell to NAMA though shooting tourists less so..

  9. Dr. X said,

    April 28, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I did a lot of market research work in Andersonstown back in the day, and I always found it a happy hunting ground.

    The one time I met Squinter, though, he wrote me up in his column the following week, declaiming that I had subjected him to the worst interrogation he’d experienced since being in Castlereagh in 1979.

  10. Dave Semple said,

    April 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I agree with John Meehan – though could care less about McCann’s press releases. It is depressing that there’s no candidate here from the socialist Left – either PBPA or Socialist Party. I understand that a lot of SP time particularly is taken up down in Cregagh etc, and no doubt SF’s expert populists have the water charges vote sewn up. Still, someone should at least be making the argument that the only choice is not between crony capitalism and middle class morality capitalism.

    • Ciarán said,

      May 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      Young Seán Mitchell of the PBP took nearly 800 first preference votes in the 2007 Assembly election here on what was basically a water charges platform. It was only 2.3% or so, but it was one of the best results for the left in the Six Counties. (Éamonn McCann got 5% in Derry.) That being said, in a place like West Belfast the only real challenge is going to come from the republican left.

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        May 4, 2010 at 11:08 pm

        I think there’s an anti-Gerry vote to be had there that isn’t necessarily left republican. An independent nationalist with a bit of populist savvy, or even an SDLP candidate who wasn’t Attwood, may be able to make some headway. But there is no such candidate of course.

      • Ciarán said,

        May 5, 2010 at 1:37 am

        What I was saying was that a left candidate would have to be of the republican left, but I agree with you’re saying above. I’d love to see what kind of impact a Gerry McGeough-style candidate could have in West Belfast.

        I think by the time Attwood is replaced (probably by Matthew McDermott) Adams will be done as well, and the constituency will be a much more open field than it has been in years. There’s not a single SF politician in this part of the city that could hold a candle to Gerry.

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