Robinson (DUP) 15,152 (49.1%)
Empey (UUP) 9,275 (30.1%)
Long (Alliance) 3,746 (12.2%)
Devenny (SF) 1,029 (3.3%)
Muldoon (SDLP) 844 (2.7%)
Greer (Cons) 434 (1.4%)
Bell (WP) 179 (0.6%)
Gilby (Dream Ticket) 172 (0.6%)
Heard the one about the First Minister, the Lord Mayor, the rugby player, the two bloggers and the headmistress? If you’re a voter in East Belfast, that’s your choice.
The East Belfast constituency consists of the eastern quarter of the Belfast City Council area, plus about half the area of Castlereagh council, stretching out into the suburbs. Economically it tends to be quite prosperous, including such areas as the proverbially wealthy Cherryvalley; there are more run-down areas such as the huge radial estates of Tullycarnet and Ballybeen, as well as (very noticeably) the Newtownards Road below the Holywood Arches, and especially the tiny nationalist enclave of Short Strand; there are large areas like Gilnahirk that have more of a suburban feel; and there’s the traditional core of the respectable working-class areas, though said respectable working class are more likely to be in the public sector now than the traditional (and long limping towards extinction) shipbuilding and engineering industries.
The other thing you need to know about East Belfast is that’s it’s by far the most Protestant constituency in the north, more so even than North Down. At the 2001 census, even taking the “community background” question, East Belfast on its current boundaries (believe it or not, the latest revision has made it even more Protestant) gave a Catholic population of 7.6%. It’s even starker if you break it down to the micro level. There are 23 local government wards in East Belfast. Of these, Ballymacarrett (the ward including Short Strand) is 50.8% Catholic; the next highest percentage is Ballyhackamore with 11.7%; none of the other 21 wards has a Catholic percentage in double figures, and two-thirds of them have less than 5%. To wax MasterChef for a moment, Belfast doesn’t get more Protestant than this.
This, moreover, is the constituency that’s been represented by Peter Robinson for the last 31 years. So, given that he’s the party leader, the First Minister, and has so many years of incumbency behind him, how come he only has a majority of 6000? And why have the DUP in East Belfast been jittery?
Let me take you all the way back to 1979, when Peter won the seat in the first place. The result then was virtually a three-way tie:
Robinson (DUP) 15,994 (31.4%)
Craig (UUP) 15,930 (31.2%)
Napier (Alliance) 15,066 (29.5%)
Agnew (UPNI) 2,017 (4.0%)
Chambers (NILP) 1,982 (3.9%)
It’s worth recalling that Bill Craig was one of the biggest names in unionism at the time, the incumbent East Belfast MP, former Vanguard leader, occupant of numerous ministries in the old Stormont. That he would be pipped by the 31-year-old whippersnapper Peter Robinson would have seemed outlandish before the votes were counted; doubly so that Oliver Napier would have been breathing so closely down Craig’s neck, the closest Alliance has ever come to winning a Westminster seat. When you get into a three-horse (or indeed four-horse) race, very strange things can happen. North Belfast, believe it or not, has an even more extensive record of bizarre results.
Longtime East Belfast residents will tell you that, when Peter first got elected and only had a tiny majority, he was a most assiduous constituency MP. Then, however, came the unionist pact, and in more recent years the DUP tide, and he had got a bit lazy. He and Iris had also become notorious, despite their huge personal votes, of costing the DUP seats at council and Assembly level through some of the most egregious quota-hogging ever seen in the north. He’s never really been happy at Westminster either, with his heart really having been in Castlereagh council – until, that is, he got to be the Stormont big shot.
Don’t get me wrong, Peter is clearly starting from a very strong position. In fact, the recent boundary change, bringing Dundonald and Ballybeen in from Strangford, should strengthen it even further, boosting his notional majority from 6000 to around 8000. Dundonald votes DUP overwhelmingly, as does Ballybeen to the extent that Ballybeen votes at all. And yet…
There has clearly always been an anti-Robinson vote in East Belfast, it’s just a case that nobody has ever managed to come through as the clear anti-Robinson candidate. Think of East Derry, where Gregory Campbell is facing a pincer movement – Lesley Macaulay could have an obvious appeal to the nice unionists in Coleraine, and Willie Ross to the dour Prods of Limavady – but the odds are that his opponents will cancel themselves out. In East Belfast, with Robbo facing challenges from three sides, the odds increase that the pincer movement will become what Mick refers to as a circular firing squad, and that the incumbent will do a Houdini.
If you go around East Belfast and look at whose posters are most in evidence, you would conclude that this is going to be a two-horse race between Naomi Long and David Vance. This clearly isn’t the case – although it does show you which parties have their tails in the air – but it is clear that the DUP leader has been running a curiously low-profile campaign. One would almost think that neutralising the anti-Robinson vote was the DUP’s top priority. And it’s true that the knock-on effects of the Robinson Affair will be most keenly felt next door in Strangford. We don’t as yet know, in terms of Peter, whether his strategy of exonerating himself and pinning the blame on his mentally ill, hospitalised wife will do the job. What we do know is that lots of Peter’s neighbours in Dundonald are still scundered at the way he sold his back garden, and they will not have been mollified by recent headlines about Fred Fraser letting Peter have that strategic bit of access land for the small consideration of just five of your Ulster pounds. All legal and above board, of course, but it made Fred look dodgy (not that Fred will care, where he is now) and it made Peter look dodgy. This was not helped by Peter giving tetchy interviews accusing Reg Empey, Trevor Ringland and Jim Allister of being liars. (Reg and Trevor made noises about consulting their legal teams; Jim of course is his own legal team.)
So, with Robbo looking tired and irritable in his media appearances, the question arises of whether anyone can beat him – and that 8000 majority isn’t an impregnable cushion. Let’s say for talk’s sake that a couple of thousand DUP voters defect to the TUV, and let’s further suppose that another couple of thousand are lost to abstention. Then things become interesting, and we start to wonder who has the momentum.
Alliance people are talking up Naomi Long’s chances, and indeed are taking a leaf out of the books of their Lib Dem colleagues by presenting the voters with some tendentious stats meant to prove that only Naomi can beat Robinson. Actually, Naomi is the strongest prospect Alliance have had since the heyday of John Alderdice – she’s East Belfast born and bred with the accent to prove it, much less posh than Alderdice (which broadens her appeal considerably), and has the characteristic ability of the East Belfast woman to speak for forty-five minutes before drawing breath. She’s also enjoyed a high profile in the last couple of years, did extremely well in the last Assembly election, and being the incumbent Lord Mayor surely doesn’t hurt. But it’s still difficult to see her picking up enough momentum to dislodge Robbo.
Over in the UCUNF corner, meanwhile, we have former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland, a relative political newcomer. Trevor’s task will be to hold and improve upon Reg Empey’s 30% score from 2005, hoping that if he gets above say 35% he could be within striking distance of a weakened Robbo. This will be tricky, for political and psephological reasons. First, the psephological reason. If we look at the 2005 result and we see 30% for the UUP and 12% for Alliance, it would seem obvious for the UUP to put a tactical squeeze on Alliance. But first look at the context, where in the 2003 Assembly election Alliance had a horrible time everywhere, with their vote in East Belfast halving to 9%. That 9% probably represents the solid phalanx of militant Alliance voters in places like Ballyhackamore and Cherryvalley, the irreducible hard core who will never vote any other way. So it’s hard to see how the Alliance vote could be squeezed much more.
Then we look to 2005. The Westminster election showed a result of
DUP 49.1%, UUP 30.1%, Alliance 12.2%
but the local government election the same day gave a return of
DUP 43.0%, UUP 25.2%, Alliance 17.5%, PUP 4.9%
which would suggest there was already a considerable tactical vote for Empey from natural Alliance supporters, on the basis that he was best placed to beat Robinson. If we then zip forward to the 2007 Assembly election, we have a return of
DUP 37.6%, UUP 22.0%, Alliance 18.8%, PUP 10.3%
and on that basis it isn’t terribly clear who the obvious challenger is, especially when you consider that Dawn Purvis’ 10.3% would scatter to the four winds. With both Long and Ringland claiming to be the only candidate who could beat Robinson, the likelihood increases that they’ll cancel each other out.
The political problem is that Trevor Ringland, like Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast, is on the liberal wing of the UUP, and it’s not that difficult to imagine him as an Alliance candidate. Paradoxically, an old-school unionist like Reg might have been better placed to take votes directly off the DUP and to tactically squeeze Alliance; a liberal unionist might be less able to appeal to wavering DUP voters or wavering Alliance voters. Nor, incidentally, is the Tory link necessarily a vote-winner in East Belfast, which contains lots of public sector workers who will have noted David Cameron’s remarks about slashing the public sector here. We’ll just have to see how Trevor does.
The joker in the pack, in more ways than one, is ace blogger and virtual one-man army David Vance. Guilty pleasure alert: I like David Vance, in the same way that I like Jim Allister – I rarely agree with anything he says, but he livens things up considerably. While there is little in the way of reliable polling here, and you have to take reports from the parties with a pinch of salt – TUV canvassers report a warm reception on the Lower Newtownards Road and Ballybeen, with the Swish Family Robinson message going down well – there is simply no way of knowing how well David will do. The last time a dissident unionist stood in East Belfast was Denny Vitty for the UKUP in the 1998 Assembly election, and he only got 3.4%. My instinct – and it’s only an instinct – is for a higher TUV vote, but it’s impossible to predict.
As for the nationalist parties, who are on a hiding to nothing in this constituency, it’s all about bragging rights and gearing up for the next local government election. One presumes Niall Ó Donnghaile will pull in SF’s usual thousand-odd votes from Short Strand and virtually nothing from anywhere else, while Mary Muldoon, having once again drawn the SDLP’s short straw, will get some votes from the Strand but not many, and will mostly be hoping for votes from scattered middle-class Catholics in Ballyhackamore and Cherryvalley, most of whom will probably be voting for Naomi Long anyway.
And if you’re into that sort of thing, the Belfast Telegraph has a poll out with constituency breakdowns. Given the historically shocking unreliability of polls here, not least due to punters giving pollsters what they think the pollster might consider to be the politically correct answer, take with a heaped teaspoon of salt – some of the figures look credible, but there’s more than a few that are literally incredible. Mark adds the necessary caveats, and Turgon is as sceptical as I am.