Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas WhyteEast Belfast
contains 11 wards from the City of Belfast and 9 wards from neighbouring Castlereagh. Essentially, it takes in all of 'core' Belfast east of the Woodstock Road and Cregagh Road, stopping short of Dundonald at one end but bulging out to the South West to take in the Cregagh Estate, where Peter Robinson hails from, as well as the leafy, religiously mixed, lanes of Wynchurch.
East Belfast is the most Protestant constituency of the 18 (9.9% Catholic by community background) and also one of the oldest - 24% of the population are over 60 here as opposed to 18% across Northern Ireland. At first glance, the constituency seems prosperous enough, with a very low rate of unemployment and benefit claims below the Northern Ireland average. Indeed some of the Northern Ireland's wealthiest areas are here, around Stormont, Ballyhackamore and that living stereotype, Cherryvalley, as well as further out in Gilnahirk and along the Knockbreda Carriageway. However, the Catholic Short Strand enclave is one of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland, as are the rather larger Protestant estates adjacent to it on the Newtownards and Albertbridge Roads, along with the edge of town estate of Tullycarnet, once famous for its UFF mural starring Iron Maiden's Eddie the Head
More typical of the constituency, however, are the neat, if nondescript, interwar suburbs sprawling along the Castlereagh and Cregagh Roads, Ladas Drive, Orangefield and Sydenham. The rather improved Housing Executive estate at the Braniel is demographically similar. These areas contain a high proportion of Belfast's prosperous skilled working-class, the group that form the bulk of the electorate in East Belfast.
House prices are high, and there have been considerable developments of new mews house estates in the inner city section, attracting more middle-class people, and more Catholics, into what has traditionally been a working-class Protestant heartland.
In the 2003 Assembly elections, the constituency returned 2 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 Alliance and 1 PUP member. Nicholas Whyte has the count by count figures on his website
. What is going to happen this time? Let's start with the easy ones to predict.
East Belfast is unusual in having seen the Ulster Unionist vote strengthen since the Good Friday Agreement was signed; perhaps this is a rare case where political polarisation actually helped the UUP pull away moderate voters who'd previously voted for local DUP MP, Peter Robinson, on a personal basis. There seem to be two solid UUP quotas here. The Party Leader effect should also be worth a thousand votes or so for Reg Empey. Michael Copeland undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows in Ballymacarrett with his antics over the Cluan Place crisis; further out in the suburbs, those less familiar with the details of the situation might see that as a sign of authenticity and cross-class solidarity. with Jim Rodgers also rejoining the fold, the Ulster Unionists are running the same trio as they did last time, although without any prospect of winning more than two seats. In any case, expect to see Copeland elected comfortably thanks to his higher profile despite an anaemic first preference vote of less than half a quota, after he benefits from a large surplus from Empey.
Alliance also look safe. Despite a record poor performance of just 9.0%, or 0.63 quotas, here in 2003, Naomi Long was elected relatively comfortably by the end of the count. Long boosted her vote to 12.2% in the General Election and should see it rise further as she is now an established figure on both the local and Northern Ireland political scene. Alliance's 2005 council election vote in the area was over 17%. If she isn't elected on the first count, then expect her to be when she pulls in a thousand or so transfers from Nationalists; perhaps more than that, as the 45% transfer rate from Nationalists to Alliance last time was unusually poor.
With no dissident republican standing, the internal nationalist struggle will doubtless be won by Sinn Féin, whose Short Strand heartland, despite the McCartney incident, still outvotes scattered SDLP votes in Ballyhackamore, Wynchurch and Gilnahirk. However, with a combined nationalist vote of half a quota, at best, here the only real interest will be for bragging rights and transfers.
Tories, Stickies, Socialists and Rainbow George Weiss managed a grand total of 598 votes between them last time; this time a Green will join them, whereas John McBlain, who polled a spectacular 72 votes as the joke candidate, will not be contesting. None of them will trouble the leader board.
The key question here is whether or not the DUP can take three seats at the expense of the PUP's Dawn Purvis. On paper, the DUP should have no trouble - although it their vote hasn't increased to the same degree as in other parts of NI, it has been edging up towards three quotas in recent elections. Ervine managed only 9.7%, or 0.68 Quotas last time, which is starting to head towards the danger zone. Since then, the PUP's political fortunes have sunk further and they will lose that part of Ervine's vote which was highly personal. Purvis isn't a bad candidate, but she doesn't have anything like Ervine's media presence. She has a steep uphill struggle.
The DUP, however, have a history of throwing away seats in East Belfast through poor balancing, largely caused by Peter Robinson's ego - in 2003, Ervine's seat was effectively handed to him by the DUP. The DUP had 2.74 Quotas and could have balanced three candidates ahead of Ervine and the UUP's Michael Copeland with anything more than a token effort. That was virtually a rerun of 1982, when Sammy Wilson was the victim of Robinson vote-hoarding that turned 2.8 Quotas into 2 seats and handed a second seat to Alliance.
There's plenty of evidence that the DUP have learned the balancing lesson in other parts of Northern Ireland, and they certainly have the machine to deliver a vote-splitting message here if Robinson agrees to it. Unlike last time the DUP will be running a strong third candidate in Wallace Brown rather than Harry Toan, who was something of a passenger. Sammy Wilson's move to East Antrim does leave them a little naked in Pottinger, but with Robinson being the local Westminster MP for 28 years, the DUP are not exactly short of local roots. If the DUP can keep Robinson limited to a quota and a half and have each of Newton and Browne on at least half a quota or so each at the first count, they should be home in a boat. If total DUP vote is much in excess of three quotas in the first count the balance won't matter anyway.
Purvis not only needs to do well to survive - any less than 0.6 Quotas and she can kiss the seat goodbye - but she needs everything else to break exactly right for her. If Naomi Long is elected on the first count, leaving Purvis a few hundred extra transfers from nationalists, and if Empey and Robinson are both well in excess of the quota on the first count spraying transfers all over the place, and if Michael Copeland has a surplus to pass on to her at some point, and if Robinson's surplus favour's one DUP candidate heavily over another, she might just hang on. Maybe. But if I were a gambling man I wouldn't be putting any money on it.
2003 vote - DUP 39.2%/2.74Q, UUP 33.1%/2.32Q, PUP 9.7%/0.68Q, Alliance 9.0%/0.63Q, Sf 3.8%/0.27Q, SDLP 3.1%/0.22Q, Oth 2.2%/0.15Q.
Candidates - DUP: Wallace BROWNE, Robin NEWTON*, Peter ROBINSON*. UUP: Michael COPELAND*, Reg EMPEY*, Jim RODGERS. PUP: Dawn PURVIS*. Alliance: Naomi LONG*. SF: Niall O'DONNGHALIE. SDLP: Mary MULDOON. Conservative: Glyn CHAMBERS. Socialist: Thomas BLACK. Workers' Party: Joe BELL. Make Politicians History: George RAINBOW. Green: Steven AGNEW.Prediction: 3 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 Alliance.