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2007 Assembly Election Guide: Constituency No. 3 of 18 - South Belfast 
15th-Feb-2007 01:04 pm
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Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte


South Belfast contains 13 wards from the City of Belfast and 6 wards from neighbouring Castlereagh. Most of the boundaries of the constituency are firmly fixed by the M1 motorway to the West and the Woodstock and Cregagh Roads to the East. On the outskirts, Finaghy is in this constituency, Dunmurry is across the boundary in Lagan Valley; further to the East, the constituency spreads beyond the Belfast City boundary to include the whole built up area around Belvoir and Four Winds, but Wynchurch and Glencregagh are over the boundary into East Belfast. Most of Belfast City Centre is in this constituency, along with its attendant new apartment blocks.



The common perception of South Belfast is of a leafy, bourgeois, secure area. To a large degree that is true – Stranmillis, the Malone Road, Rosetta, the Saintfield Road and even Finaghy are among the least deprived in Northern Ireland. However, poverty increases steadily as one heads from the suburbs towards the City Centre. Ballynafeigh and bedsit land around Queen’s University and the Lower Lisburn Road have slightly higher than average levels of deprivation. Finally, there is an Inner City belt stretching from The Village through the Donegall Pass, Markets and Lower Ormeau to the Lower Ravenhill Road where every Super Output Area is in the poorest fifth in Northern Ireland, with the highest levels of deprivation being found in the Markets. The edge of town estate of Taughmonagh also has high levels of deprivation. In contrast, Belvoir is a rather more prosperous estate where much of the housing stock has been sold off.

However, the bulk of the constituency is not only relatively well off, but young and religiously mixed. The fertility rate here, at 1.23, is not only the lowest in Northern Ireland, but at a level more associated with Spain or Hong Kong. While there are obviously few children here (18% as opposed to 24% across Northern Ireland), the number of over 60s is still only the same as the Northern Ireland average. Almost half of adults are unmarried, as opposed to a third across NI, and the average household size is noticeably smaller than the NI average. Unsurprisingly given its academic connections, in South Belfast mare than twice the average proportion of people have a degree.

Demographically, the constituency is close to the Northern Ireland average, at 41.4% Catholic and 52.0% Protestant; these figures are from 2001, and unlike North Belfast, change is still proceeding rapidly here, although all the middle-class areas of the constituency are still impeccably mixed.

However, arguably the most notable factor in the demographics of the area is the high proportion of people who the census takers could not define within either main Northern Ireland community (6.6%). Indeed, while most of the constituency is overwhelmingly White, it does contain the vast bulk of Northern Ireland districts which have a significant ethnic minority population, around Botanic, Stranmillis and the Lisburn Road, where it exceeds 10% in places. That population can only have increased since the last census was taken in 2001.

South Belfast’s political history reflects this mixed population. At the last Assembly elections in 2003, the SDLP and UUP won 2 seats each, the DUP and Sinn Féin 1 each. Sinn Féin gained their seat from Monica McWilliams of the Women’s Coalition. McWilliams beat the Alliance Party’s Steve McBride narrowly in 1998, and lost equally narrowly to the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell in 2003. As always, Nicholas Whyte has the scores on the doors in detail.

In an educated, literate constituency, with a politically conscious working-class minority, many voters are acutely aware of the differences between different types of elections and tactical voting and ticket splitting is common here. That makes prediction a little more difficult, but not impossible.

The Unionist vote has bumped up and down between 47% and 52% in recent years, meaning that there are three clear unionist quotas. In 2003, the Ulster Unionists had almost exactly two quotas, and the DUP about a quota and a half. The 2005 elections indicated that those positions were almost exactly reversed, with the DUP scoring two clear Quotas in the General Election, and a little short of that, at 25.4%, in the more fragmented local council poll. The Ulster Unionists seem to be in deep trouble, polling only 22.7% in the General Election and 19.7% in the local poll.

All five candidates from the major unionist parties – the UUP’s Michael McGimpsey, Esmond Birnie and Bob Stoker, and the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt and Christopher Stalford and established political figures in the area. However, the UUP’s decision to run three candidates when they are facing a very difficult defence of two seats on somewhere around 1.5 Quotas, is insane. In the City Council elections, the UUP came within 1 vote of saving Esmond Birnie’s council seat in Balmoral, despite lagging considerably in total first preferences, by adopting an ultra-conservative vote management and balancing strategy. They do not seem to have learned the correct lessons from this.

I am extremely confident that both Stalford and Spratt will be returned and that Esmond Birnie will lose his seat.

The PUP are running here but will do well even to get the 495 votes they managed in 2003; David Hoey will contest the seat on an anti-St. Andrew’s ticket on behalf of the UKUP. Opposition to St. Andrew’s seems to be stronger in rural areas, and the DUP’s position is strong enough here that I do not envisage UKUP threatening their likely gain.

There are currently 3 Nationalist MLAs, with a Nationalist vote bouncing between 34% and 41%. The high figure of 41% may be an outlier caused by Alliance voters voting tactically for McDonnell to stop the DUP in the Westminster election (the Nationalist vote in the simultaneous local poll was 37%). If that assumption is correct, there are not quite three nationalist quotas in South Belfast. On the other hand, there is no centrist MLA in the constituency, but a centrist vote fluctuating wildly between 6% and 15%. Obviously there is potential for Alliance to take one of those three Nationalist seats – but how great is that potential, and which of the Nats is most vulnerable?

Firstly, let's look at the potential Alliance challenge. Candidate Anna Lo, born and bred in Hong Kong, is the first member of an ethnic minority to be selected for winnable elected office in Northern Ireland history. As well as the aforementioned ethnic vote, there is a much larger bloc of white, liberal-left, voters in South Belfast who would support such a prospect on principle. These are the same people who propelled the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition into the Assembly in 1998. Alliance’s local election vote here was 12.8%, or 0.90 quotas, in 2005 – indentical to the combined Alliance and Women’s Coalition votes in 2003. This is clearly enough of a base for a centrist, transfer-friendly candidate to win a seat easily. However, Alliance have had difficulty retaining this vote in recent years. As well as much of this vote defecting to the Women’s Coalition in 2003, in the General Election, it seems to have defected to McDonnell and to a lesser extent McGimpsey. Alliance must convince these voters that Lo has a serious chance of winning; if they do, Lo wins. 11% on the first count will almost certainly be enough to see her pass the quota, and depending how the Nationalist candidates split, 9% might just be enough.

Maskey and both SDLP candidates will likely be on at least 10%, so she must poll well on the first count. Even if she is the fourth of these four candidates on the first candidates on the first count, though, all is not lost. If she can stay in the count longer than Esmond Birnie, which must be very likely, then she can hope for a much better transfer from him than any of the Nationalist candidates.

All three candidates from the main nationalist parties – Alasdair McDonnell and Carmel Hanna of the SDLP, and Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin – are sitting Assembly members, and McDonnell is the sitting MP. Based on past form, McDonnell would clearly be the most vulnerable of the three – he held his seat from the Women’s Coalition by only 127 votes in 2003. However, being elected MP must have done wonders to raise his profile.

Unusually, the SDLP are actually well organised and extremely competent at the nuts and bolts of election mechanics in South Belfast. The downside of this is that the two branches in the constituency – Finaghy/Malone and Ormeau/Stranmillis – are each linked with one of the candidates; the former with Hanna, the latter with McDonnell. Internal relations are not always good, and early SDLP postering shows little evidence of one SDLP candidate wanting to do too much to promote their rival. If canvassing shows the SDLP likely to lose a seat, things might get a little messy, although there’s no sign of that happening yet.

However, it's worth bearing in mind that the only time the SDLP have broken the two-quota mark here is in Westminster Elections when there was clear evidence of tactical voting. It's hard to see both SDLP candidates being all that close to a first stage quota and if they balance poorly, their second runner might just lose out. Which of the two is more vulnerable? That's anyone's guess.

Sinn Féin have one candidate and a united campaign team. Their problem is transfer repellance. Throughout the 2003 count, Maskey attracted less than 100 transfers. It is very difficult to judge what will happen to the Sinn Féin vote here; Maskey’s unprecedented win in 2003 on 12.6% of the vote turned out to something of a high water mark for SF. In 2005, undoubtedly affected by the Robert McCartney murder and Northern Bank robbery, both of which occurred in the constituency, it fell to just 10.3% in the local elections, and aided by tactical voting in the General to just 9.0%. This would put Maskey deep, deep, in the danger zone.

Given his transfer repellance and a much stronger Alliance campaign than in 2003, I reckon Maskey needs to be about least 3% points ahead of Lo on the first count to keep Alliance out, or alternatively be about half a percentage point ahead of the SDLP's weaker runner. That probably means that Maskey needs at least 12% to be in with a chance, and maybe 13% to be absolutely safe. Rumblings from the Sinn Féin camp indicate they believe they will have to work hard to hold this seat - this is the only seat in the Assembly they believe there is a genuine risk (and it is only a risk) of them losing.

How does Maskey produce that winning 13%? Most of Sinn Féin's vote here is 'new' SF, rather than 'traditional' SF. They musy hope that the negative fallout from 2004-5 has blown away, possibly aided by recent Sinn Féin decisions on policing. If so, Maskey should be around the 13-14% mark. On other hand they must hope that the traditional Republican vote isn't too put off by the modernisation of Sinn Féin; contrary to popular belief, such a vote isn't confined to the Markets - there's a smattering of it in Ardmore and the Lower Ormeau. More importantly, there might be a lot of it among students and ex-students from traditionally republican rural areas. Nobody knows, but Maskey's coalition is so broad that he must be careful of leaking too much at either end.

Making things even more difficult to call are the long run of ragtag and bobtail candidates - Socialist, Green, Tory, Workers' Party and, of course, Rainbow George. Adding to the fun is a 'Pro-Capitalism' candidate (Charles Smith) and an Independent living in student housing in Shaftesbury Square (Geoffrey Wilson).

2003 vote - UUP 27.0%/1.89Q, SDLP 22.9%/1.60Q, DUP 20.8%/1.46Q, SF 12.6%/0.88Q, Women's Coalition 6.9%/0.48Q, Alliance 5.9%/0.41Q, PUP 1.6%/0.11Q, Oth 2.3%/0.16Q.

Candidates - UUP: Esmond BIRNIE*, Michael McGIMPSEY*, Bob STOKER. SDLP: Carmel HANNA*, Alasdair McDONNELL*. DUP: Jimmy SPRATT, Christopher STALFORD. SF: Alex MASKEY*. Alliance: Anna LO. PUP: Andrew PARK. Green: Brenda COOKE. Socialist: James BARBOUR. Conservative: Roger LOMAS. Workers’ Party: Paddy LYNN. Make Politicians History: George RAINBOW. UKUP: David HOEY. Pro-Capitalism: Charles SMITH. Ind: Geoffrey WILSON. (*=Sitting MLA)

Prediction: 2 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SDLP, 1 SF, 1 Alliance.

(And as I’m far from certain of the destination of the last seat, I reserve the right to change this one!!!)
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