Constituency whistle-stop, part the final: Gotham City #ae11

And so for the last of our bite-sized mini-meals we arrive back at the metropolis.

North Belfast

2007 Stormont results: DUP 37.4%, 2 seats; SF 30.6%, 2 seats; SDLP 13.7%, 1 seat; UUP 8.4%, 1 seat; Raymond McCord 4.4%; Green 2.0; Alliance 1.6%; UKUP 1.2%; WP 0.5%; Rainbow George 0.1%.

2010 Westminster results: Dodds (DUP) 40.0%; Kelly (SF) 34.0%; Maginness (SDLP) 12.3%; Cobain (UUP/UCUNF) 7.7%; Webb (Alliance) 4.9%; McAuley (Ind).

2011 Stormont candidates: Paula Bradley (DUP); Fred Cobain (UUP); William Humphrey (DUP); Gerry Kelly (SF); John Lavery (WP); JJ Magee (SF); Alban Maginness (SDLP); Nelson McCausland (DUP); Raymond McCord (Ind); Carál Ní Chuilín (SF); Billy Webb (Alliance).

Multiple features of interest in the north of the city. Actually the least of these is the extensive boundary change, since the mass exodus of Ardoyne residents to Glengormley is making the suburbs look more and more like the Inner North in demographic terms. Note also that the combined nationalist vote share is in the mid-forties, and the unionist share barely scraping half, in what used to be a safe unionist seat.

The nationalist side is straightforward enough. Sinn Féin have two quotas plus change, and will easily retain their two seats, with the third candidate being there as a marker rather than a current prospect. The SDLP, whose core vote in the area is quite resilient, will turn in the guts of a quota, and Allbran won’t have any trouble being re-elected.

It’s on the unionist side where we have an injection of colour. One dash comes from victims’ campaigner Raymond McCord (very much a good egg) who has done sterling work in exposing a whole network of corruption linked to his son’s murder in 1997 by a UVF unit that turned out to be so riddled with police informers as effectively to be an unofficial arm of the state. This, unfortunately, is the sort of murky thing that happened on multiple occasions during the Troubles, in north Belfast more than anywhere. Mr McCord, incidentally, received bog all support from local unionist politicians, and doesn’t mind saying so in very trenchant terms. And he strikes a chord with those working-class Protestants who don’t like their estates being run by burly men in ill-fitting suits.

There’s also perennial UUP man Fred Cobain, who surreally was the Conservative and Unionist candidate here last year despite being a self-described socialist who’d really rather be in the Labour Party. Fred’s working-class credentials are so solid that he once left a UUP conference halfway through so as to attend a Crusaders match. Over the years, I’ve sort of warmed to Fred as a sort of relict of a kind of local politico you don’t get any more.

And, if you want a dash of colour, a whole paint pot is provided by culture minister Nelson McCausland, and never was a man better qualified for a ministerial post. Not only is Nelson a fluent speaker of Ulster Scots, he has a slightly alarming habit of whipping out his accordion and playing folksy ballads without prior warning. For many years Nelson was heid-yin of the Lord’s Day Observance Society, a rather old-school organisation that likes to go around chaining up swings in children’s play areas. He’s also, believe it or not, a British Israelite; and, in a perhaps not unconnected twist, has been rather keen in his ministerial role to encourage our museums to give a fair crack of the whip to Young Earth Creationism. Except for a few odd places in the west of Scotland, it’s hard to think of anywhere else where you’d get a politician quite like Nelson McCausland.

Right now, what are those electoral calculations? Well, it’s safe to assume two seats for the DUP. In fact, the DUP’s first preference tally last time around should have snaffled it three seats and a monopoly of unionist representation, but this did not come to pass thanks to some egregiously egotistical quota-squatting from Nigel Dodds, an anachronism in a DUP that these days aspires to manage its vote with pinpoint accuracy. The resulting transfer leakage allowed Fred Cobain to cling on despite being nowhere near a quota on the first count (and even some way off on the final count).

The question, then, will be whether the DUP can exert enough discipline to secure that elusive third, or whether Fred will frustrate them yet again. Raymond McCord’s transfers could come into play here; and last time out, Fred was helped along by some friendly transfers from the SDLP.

Finally, Fordy has named North Belfast as an Alliance target, to which I can only reply that our justice minister must have been having a senior moment.

West Belfast

2007 Stormont results: SF 69.9%, 5 seats; SDLP 12.2%, 1 seat; DUP 10.8%, PBP 2.3%; UUP 1.7%; WP 1.3%; RSF 1.3%; Alliance 0.4%; Rainbow George 0.2%.

2010 Westminster results: Adams (SF) 71.1%; Attwood (SDLP) 16.4%; Humphrey (DUP) 7.6%; Manwaring (UUP/UCUNF) 3.1%; Hendron (Alliance) 1.9%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Alex Attwood (SDLP); Gerry Carroll (PBP); Colin Keenan (SDLP); Brian Kingston (DUP); Pat Lawlor (Socialist Party); John Lowry (WP); Bill Manwaring (UUP); Paul Maskey
(SF); Fra McCann (SF); Jennifer McCann (SF); Dan McGuinness (Alliance); Brian Pelan (SD); Sue Ramsey (SF); Pat Sheehan (SF).

Next we turn to the north’s nearest approximation of a one-party state. Last time out, Sinn Féin did something quite incredible in a PR election by taking five seats out of six. They did this by first, taking 4.89 quotas on first preferences; secondly by balancing their candidates very well, not the easiest thing to do with Gerry Adams on the ballot; thirdly by keeping their transfers very tight indeed. Worth noting, too, that in the last local government elections the party took five seats out of five in the Lower Falls electoral area with an 85.2% vote share, and four out of five in Upper Falls with 75.2%. Even with the incursion of non-SF republicans into the local government race, you wouldn’t bet against them repeating the trick.

Arguably, Gerry’s departure for Louth weakens the ticket. But it will be worth watching to see whether the most efficient political machine in the north can pull off the five-seat trick again.

If they do, then who takes the sixth? In 2007, the SDLP only had 0.85% of a quota between their two candidates, with Alex Attwood being elected beneath quota on the last count. There is a school of thought in Sinn Féin that wouldn’t mind the DUP regaining their West Belfast seat – of which more in a sec – provided this was at Attwood’s expense. And it’s risky on the SDLP’s part to run two candidates when they can’t be certain of even getting one quota. I do, however, think they will hang on this time, though they may be reliant on small-party transfers. There is enough of a core SDLP vote in, say, the nicer bits of Andersonstown to get them close enough to a quota for it not to be much of a stretch, and to retain that lone council seat in Upper Falls. The longer-term problem for the SDLP, here more evident than elsewhere, is that their vote is quite elderly, the more prosperous elements of it have migrated to South Belfast, they have no organisation worth talking about, and the West Belfast SDLP voter is incredibly demoralised after years of having their ass whipped by Gerry. As a paradigm of the problem, young people here may not vote in great numbers, but those who do vote monolithically for Sinn Féin.

Now, what about that unionist seat? There should, theoretically, be the chance of one; indeed, the DUP’s Diane Dodds did win a seat here in 2003. But it’s always been touch and go. Last time out the two unionist candidates had a combined 0.87 of a quota, but with nobody to get transfers from but each other, Diane Dodds was left in seventh place, 500 votes short. There just aren’t enough unionist voters left in West Belfast to make that seat a certainty, and those that are there don’t turn out in enough numbers to elect an MLA. Although again, perhaps Gerry’s appeal to working-class Protestants to turn out and vote was not a sign of cross-community socialism, but rather an attempt to cut Attwood off at the knees.

Finally, West Belfast voters are spoiled by having no less than four varieties of the further left pitching for their number 1. Sigh. I know the differences between the groups are significant to the groups, but they don’t appear terribly significant to the average punter, and the leftist alphabet soup struggling to avoid the wooden spoon and, inevitably, some group crowing about the historic significance of it getting a handful more votes than the others – well, it makes the left look silly. Especially as the Socialist Party and People Before Profit are in an actual electoral alliance south of the border.

South Belfast

2007 Stormont results: SDLP 26.8%, 2 seats; DUP 22.4%, 1 seat; UUP 18.4%, 1 seat; SF 13.2%, 1 seat; Alliance 12.6%, 1 seat; Green 2.4%; PUP 1.4%; UKUP 1.0%; Socialist Party 0.8%; WP 0.4%; Cons 0.4%; Rainbow George 0.2%; Procapitalism 0.1%; Geoffrey Wilson 0.03%.

2010 Westminster results: McDonnell (SDLP) 41.0%; Spratt (DUP) 23.7%; Bradshaw (UUP/UCUNF) 17.3%; Lo (Alliance) 15.0%; McGibbon (Green) 3.0%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Clare Bailey (Green); Brian Faloon (PBP); Mark Finlay (UUP); Anna Lo (Alliance); Paddy Lynn (WP); Alex Maskey (SF); Conall McDevitt (SDLP); Big Al McDonnell (SDLP); Michael McGimpsey (UUP); Paddy Meehan (Socialist Party); Ruth Patterson (DUP); Charles Smyth (Procapitalism); Jimmy Spratt (DUP); Nico Torregrosa (UKIP).

We conclude our tour with a constituency where, again, the best bet is for no change, with all six incumbents being returned. Not a foregone conclusion, though, and South Belfast is synonymous with tight races.

The SDLP, helped by Westminster incumbency, are likely to retain their two seats. While it’s true that the boundary change makes South Belfast nominally a little less nationalist, this is probably the constituency with the most rapid demographic shift, and the SDLP will be close enough to two quotas to hang on. Arguably, that’s the least interesting thing in one of the few constituencies where the SDLP has a semblance of organisation, as its two branches (Ormeau/Stranmillis and Malone/Finaghy) have been in a state of undeclared tribal warfare for as long as anyone can remember. Carmel Hanna’s retirement has not ended this as her replacement, strategy whizzkid Conall McDevitt, is closely identified with the Margaret Ritchie leadership and therefore not the pin-up boy of the more enthusiastic McDonnell tribesmen. That’s a soap that will run and run, as evidenced by the McDonnell posters on the Ormeau that say “McDevitt 2” in microscopic print.

The UUP, which had two seats in the constituency not so long ago, will have enough votes to re-elect Gimpo, but isn’t doing too well in South Belfast. Its South Belfast candidate of last year, Paula Bradshaw, has defected to Alliance, while the DUP is squatting its more traditional vote in places like Sandy Row. Anna Lo, on the other hand, did very well last year, and should cruise home with the support, not merely of traditional Alliance types plus the Chinese community, but also the good will of those many liberal-minded people in South Belfast who approve in principle of having Anna Lo in the Assembly.

Jimmy Spratt is also odds on, which only leaves Alex Maskey. Last time around, that last seat was quite close. Despite having 0.92 of a quota on first preferences, Maskey proved incredibly transfer-repellent, only picking up 170 transfers over the course of ten counts, and coming in some 900 votes ahead of the runner-up, the DUP’s Chris Stalford. Any slippage whatsoever in Maskey’s first preferences would leave him vulnerable; on the other hand, his withdrawal last year in McDonnell’s favour won’t have done his chances of receiving SDLP voters’ number 3 any harm. I would tend to think he’s close enough to be very difficult indeed to catch.

Sin é, and phew. Thank God I wasn’t doing previews of the 26 district councils.

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