Know your constituency: North Belfast

2005 result:
Dodds (DUP) 13,935 (45.6%)
Kelly (SF) 8,747 (28.6%)
Maginness (SDLP) 4,950 (16.2%)
Cobain (UUP) 2,154 (7.1%)
Hawkins (Alliance) 438 (1.4%)
Delaney (WP) 165 (0.5%)
Gilby (Dream Ticket) 151 (0.5%)

2010 candidates: Fred Cobain (UCUNF), Nigel Dodds (DUP), Gerry Kelly (SF), Alban Maginness (SDLP), Martin McAuley (Ind), Billy Webb (Alliance)

One of the most comical sights of this election has been granted to residents of North Belfast, who can see the Cameron-approved slogan “Vote For Change” on a poster bearing the image of Fred Cobain. Yes, it’s plus ça change in North Belfast, with the same four major-party contenders as last time, and the main interest being in watching the percentages – no major change is to be expected here, although the area does have a track record of weird results.

North Belfast is the northern quarter of Belfast City Council, plus adjoining areas of Newtownabbey – in the latest boundary revision it’s gained Cloughfern from East Antrim and five wards in the Glengormley area from South Antrim. The sectarian balance is 52.7% Protestant to 44.0% Catholic, with the gap narrowing (although more slowly than in South Belfast). The stereotypical image of North Belfast is one of sectarian violence, of peace walls, and of urban deprivation – which is all true, in that the area had the highest casualty rate during the Troubles, there are lots of interface areas where segregated communities rub up against each other, and there are areas of quite serious poverty. There are also, however, some quite pleasant leafy areas, a few of them still mixed; and there is a lot of exurban development at the Newtownabbey end. Some of this is nice commuter-belt housing, but there’s also the enormous loyalist estate of Rathcoole, which has a deservedly fearsome reputation.

Where the stereotypes ring most true is in the working-class inner-city part of the constituency, especially in the interface areas around the Crumlin Road and Duncairn Gardens. Housing is still a flashpoint issue here, as working-class loyalist areas like Tigers Bay are in long-term decline (those who can afford to move out do so) while working-class republican areas like Ardoyne and New Lodge have very long housing lists, and the situation can’t be eased because the Housing Executive will not have Catholics moving into designated Protestant areas. This is not without good reason, because the one thing guaranteed to drive North Belfast Prods buck mad is the threat of “encroachment”, and because you would need to be an extremely brave Catholic to move into some of these areas anyway. Unsurprisingly, there is often trouble in North Belfast during the marching season, due to the combination of friction at interfaces and Ardoyne having a large population of unemployed spides who don’t need much excuse to riot.

So, onto that intriguing electoral history. We just covered the 1979 result in East Belfast, but the North Belfast result that year was odder yet:

McQuade (DUP) 11,690 (27.6%)
Walker (UUP) 10,695 (25.3%)
O’Hare (SDLP) 7,823 (18.5%)
Dickson (UPNI) 4,220 (10.0%)
Cushnahan (Alliance) 4,120 (9.7%)
Lynch (Republican Clubs) 1,907 (4.5%)
Carr (NILP) 1,889 (4.5%)

A bit of a historical curiosity this, and it just shows you how unpredictable a contest can be when there’s a crowded field. With the UUP having deselected sitting MP John Carson – and that’s a story in itself – the DUP’s Johnny McQuade came from nowhere to take the seat on the lowest percentage for a winning candidate in that election, and one of the lowest ever; McQuade, who would then have been in his late sixties, was also one of the oldest first-term MPs ever. Note also almost 30% of the vote going to the four centre-ground or left candidates – during the 1980s the constituency would return respectable votes for Alliance and for perennial Workers Party candidate Séamus Lynch. Both the specifically liberal and specifically socialist votes in North Belfast have fallen by the wayside in more recent years.

McQuade did not contest again in 1983 – he died the following year – and the seat was taken over by the UUP’s Cecil Walker, who held it for the following eighteen years. During that time we had all sorts of dramatic events, notably the rise of Sinn Féin in the area and to a lesser extent the PUP, but Cecil seemed immovable, not least because the DUP didn’t challenge him. Then there was that fateful 2001 televised debate in Crumlin Road Courthouse, where the 76-year-old Walker looked old and confused, and gave the impression of not understanding the questions. To be scrupulously fair, Cecil was quite deaf by that point and probably didn’t hear half of the questions, but the impression of him as a doddery old man stuck, and while Cecil dropped from first place to fourth (in percentage terms, from 52% to 12%), Nigel Dodds stormed to victory.

Nobody really expects Deputy Dodds to lose this time around, although some optimistic Shinners fancy Gerry Kelly to pull off a surprise. This is unlikely. In the 2007 Assembly election, it’s true that the SF vote was up at 30.6% – not a million miles off the DUP’s 37.6% – while the SDLP were squeezed down to 13.7%, but it’s hard to see what – except for the long slow effects of demography – can push the Kelly vote up much further. There’s a solid SDLP vote in the middle-class areas around the Antrim Road, as evidenced by the SDLP’s continuing local government strength in the area, and the new voters in Glengormley are somewhat more likely to be SDLP than SF. This should at least slow down the drift from SDLP to SF, though not arrest it, and Kelly – a notorious IRA hard man rather than a Sinn Féin Nua smoothie – is not the most obvious candidate to apply a tactical squeeze. It’s also undoubtedly the case that Allbran is one of the SDLP’s strongest candidates in personal terms.

The perfect storm would also require a dramatic surge in the UCUNF vote, which I just can’t see. Deputy Dodds is a solid character, rather than a loose cannon in the Sammy Wilson mode, and is unlikely to implode; while Fred Cobain is not exactly likely to set the world alight. In the last Stormont election, Fred had less than 60% of a quota and only held his Assembly seat thanks to some spectacular quota-squatting on the part of Nigel Dodds, whose transfers leaked all over the place and only delivered two DUP seats when they could have been in with a shout for three. There has even been speculation that UCUNF is deliberately running a weak campaign in North Belfast so as not to help Kelly over the finishing line, but I think that misoverestimates Reggie and the boys. What is remarkable is that Fred Cobain, a trade union man, a self-described socialist, a Labour Unionist of the old John Carson school, would be running on the Tory platform, especially given Sylvia Hermon’s treatment. One can only explain this by reference to the likelihood that Sylvia will win, while Fred won’t.

As for the former centre ground, Alliance’s recent form in North Belfast is around the 1% mark, although the boundary revision boosts that to a notional 3% or so. At least there won’t be a tactical squeeze on Alliance, whose voters don’t have anywhere else to go in a race between Nigel Dodds and Gerry Kelly. Meanwhile, joke candidate (though he swears blind he’s serious), 19-year-old Martin McAuley will get a few votes from his mates, but they probably wouldn’t have voted otherwise. If McAuley manages to beat Cllr Billy Webb, there will be more than a few red faces at Alliance HQ.


  1. Garibaldy said,

    May 5, 2010 at 1:39 am

    Even though the SDLP is fairly strong in Glengormley, I wouldn’t misunderestimate the extent to which the Provos will hoover up votes there among people under say 25 or 30, as well as those who’ve moved out of Ardoyne and the New Lodge, though I’d agree with pretty much everything else.

    The collapse of the vote for the centre and the left is a sad reflection on the extent to which sectarianism has taken a greater grip despite the GFA and all the rest of the progress. Especially in the area where it’s needed most. Instead, there has been an additional peace wall.

    • Ciarán said,

      May 5, 2010 at 11:40 am

      Despite the GFA?

      • Garibaldy said,

        May 5, 2010 at 6:23 pm

        Perhaps I ought to have said despite the ending of the violence (although north Belfast saw quite a few of the murders that have taken place since the ceasefires).

  2. May 5, 2010 at 8:43 am

    btw., wat is the PUP doing this election?

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      May 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm

      Sitting it out.

  3. harry monro said,

    May 5, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    I think we ought to be careful when we talk about the left vote, and its size. I honestly cant’t say about N Belfast in 1979, but in the 70s we have to admit (especially after all the frank talking about the Lost Revolution) how much the Sticks boosted the vote. At the time I thought it was all fair politics (and a laugh) but now I see how just it meant we were being dragged into electoralism. The other thing is a fare few Republican Clubs/SFWP supporters were not that much into socialism in any recognisable form, it was the Republican part that they held dear. Sorry to go back over this but much as I value many of Garibaldy’s comments I think the “good old days” have to be looked at squarely in the face.

    • Garibaldy said,

      May 5, 2010 at 6:51 pm

      I was thinking more of progress made from 1979 forward Harry. In 1983, The WP got 2,412 (5.7%), in 1986 (not really useful for comparison due to the absence of nationalist candidates probably boosting the WP vote) 3563; and in 1987, 3,062 (8.3%), which was higher than Alliance, which got 2,871 (7.8%). In 1992, the WP got 400 odd, and Lynch for New Agenda (DL) got 1300 odd.

      So even allowing for some boosting in the 1970s, it’s clear that by the 1980s there was a substantial left vote that had been grown on the basis of political activity and work on the ground, albeit it some of it was made up of a personal vote for Lynch, who was an effective councillor.

      I don’t think I was really making a point about any good old days for The WP anyway, but if there were good old days they were in my view in the 1980s rather than the 1970s. The point I was making about the rise of sectarianism though holds still more when you look at Alliance’s vote. In 1992 and 1997, Tom Campbell got 2,200-ish. There was no Alliance candidate in 2001, and in 2005 they got 438, with a different candidate. So from 1987 to 2005, the centre and left vote in north Belfast has gone from a combined 6000 odd to 600. It fell from 2500 to 600 in 8 years from 1997 to 2005. Those figures alone say something about the changes that have taken place, though it’s harder to disentangle exactly what they mean.

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        May 5, 2010 at 8:59 pm

        There might be a bit of a generational collapse. You look at the substantial NILP presence there used to be in somewhere like Newtownards, and it’s quite literally died out – you’d be hard pushed to find someone under 50 who even remembers what the NILP was.

        Another thing is the post-GFA situation, by which I would be thinking that during the Troubles the centre and left could mark itself out as being against violence. The collapse of the SDLP vote in west Belfast is not just due to Attwood not being Dr Joe, it’s that you would vote for Dr Joe to signal disapproval of what the Provos were doing. That imperative doesn’t exist any more, especially for the young who aren’t really concerned with what the Provos were doing 20 years ago.

        But that’s just a bit of impressionism. It is hard to say what exactly the collapse means.

      • harry monro said,

        May 6, 2010 at 9:23 am

        Apologies for misinterpreting you Garibaldy, I agree the Sticks in the 80s represented something very different from the 70s. As to what the centre (Alliance etc) represents in NI, is it mostly an anti-sectarian vote?

      • Garibaldy said,

        May 6, 2010 at 10:59 am

        No problem Harry, obviously didn’t make myself clear. I think that voting for Alliance, WP, or whoever is intended as a clear rejection of the communal attitude to politics. I also think in Alliance’s case that it is a statement of broader liberalism for most people as well. McCann’s candidacy in Derry is interesting . He is standing clearly and openly as beyond orange and green, but I suspect some of his campaign’s supporters and voters will have radically different attitudes to him on what constitutes sectarianism.

  4. Garibaldy said,

    May 5, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    I think part of it is people dying out. But I also suspect it’s people no longer voting. Anecdotally, I can think of some people who weren’t from traditional WP backgrounds but used to vote WP but in the years after 1992 gave up doing so, and don’t bother going out to vote now. I suspect your point about less need to mark opposition against violence would also apply in that sort of case, and would be a big factor in the absence of a younger left and centre vote. There is also the organisational decline of both centre and left with less people being involved in politics generally. Like you say, hard to interpret, although I would definitely think that the parades dispute was a massive factor in hardening attitudes.

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