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2007 Assembly Election Guide: Constituency No. 2 of 18 - North Belfast 
14th-Feb-2007 11:42 am
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map 1map 2

Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte

North Belfast contains 14 wards from the City of Belfast and 5 wards from neighbouring Newtownabbey. The core of the constituency is North Belfast 'proper', the area sandwiched between the Crumlin Road, the M2 motorway and the mountains. It also takes the vast Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey along with the surrounding areas of Bawnmore, Longlands, Merville, Rush Park and Abbot's Cross. Finally, it takes in about 40% of the Greater Shankill area. There is no consistency to which parts of the Shankill are in which constituency, with North Belfast including the Crumlin Road, Upper Shankill and Woodvale but leaving out the Lower Shankill, Glencairn, Highfield and the Mountainview area off the Crumlin Road.

For all the natural beauty of Cavehill and the leafiness of the lanes that lead up to it, poverty and sectarian division are the words most people associate with North Belfast. The constituency is only very slightly more Catholic than the Northern Ireland average (44.9% Catholic, 51.9% Protestant, by community background according to the 2001 Census). Both the Catholic population and the nationalist vote increased relentlessly for a generation, a process which now seems to have stabilised as the traditionally mixed, middle class core of the constituency along the Middle and Upper Antrim Road now has a significant Catholic majority - the output areas in that area were between 75% and 90% Catholic in the 2001 Census. While there are a few more mixed or even majority Protestant middle-class areas around Fortwilliam Park and the very top of the Ballysillan Road, North Belfast stands out as being slightly unusual as a constituency where the wealthier section of the electorate tends to be Catholic. However, the vast bulk of the constituency is deeply segregated and a lot of it is very poor indeed. Even relatively prosperous Super Output Areas by North Belfast standards, like the Glandore/Kansas Avenue one, fall in the 20% most deprived in Northern Ireland. And although there are a few very prosperous areas around Belfast Castle, the New Lodge and Tiger's Bay, Woodvale and Ardoyne, Ratchoole and Bawnmore are all among the very poorest places in the UK.

62.4% of births in the constituency in 2004 were to unmarried mothers, and outside the leafier areas, most people are either elderly (22% of the population over 60 despite low life expectancy) or are young families. Middle aged families are retreating to the few prosperous pockets or out to the County Antrim suburbs at a fair clip. Every extra Sinn Fein vote, for example, in Mayfield or Elmfield in South Antrim means one less in the New Lodge or Ardoyne.

This was the cockpit of The Troubles, with more people killed here than any other part of Northern Ireland, and the legacy of mistrust has continued in incidents such as the Holy Cross dispute. Although Alliance once had Assembly members elected here, and the constituency once provided the best votes in Northern Ireland for the Workers' Party and the Greens, polarisation and outward movement of people have decimated their base.

Last time, the constituency returned 2 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SDLP and 2 Sinn Féin members. Nicholas Whyte has, as always, the count by count figures on his website.

On the Nationalist side, things seem easy to predict. The SDLP has had a quota with some room to spare here in every election in recent times. In 1998 when they missed a second seat only through SF voters' unwillingness to transfer, but since then their position has slipped and there is no longer any prospect of them winning two seats. That makes their decision to run District Policing Partnership chair Pat Convery along with sitting MLA Alban Maginness rather odd, but not fatal.

On the Republican side, Sinn Féin's have been bumping along just shy of two quotas here since the turn of the milennium, and Kelly actually just broke that barrier with 28.6% in the 2005 Westminster election. Amazingly, anti-policing Republicans have failed to nominate a candidate in this constituency, leaving SF sitting pretty. Gerry Kelly will be re-elected easily, and City Councillor Caral ni Chuilin replacing the rather invisible Kathy Stanton without too much difficulty.

On the unionist side, things are much more interesting. UUP MLA Fred Cobain clung on to his seat with just 9.4% of the vote, or 0.66 Quotas, in 2003. Since then, he polled a dismal 7.1% in the Westminster Election, which would see him doomed. However, there was undoubtedly an element of the UUP vote voting tactically for the DUP's Nigel Dodds to keep Gerry Kelly out in that election. In the local government election of the same day, the UUP polled 9.2% - far from out of the danger zone, but enough to stay in with a fighting chance. The PUP also polled 3.4% in the same election, and with them out of the running this time, the UUP would hope to scoop up much of their vote.

The converse is true for the DUP. Dodds polled a massive 45.6% in the General Election, which would see them return three seats easily; in the local elections on the same day, they polled 37.0%, which would mean a nip and tuck battle between their third candidate and Fred Cobain; especially if poor balancing, which the DUP have a history of here, left their third candidate stranded. Last time, Nigel Dodds polled 9276 votes to Nelson McCausland's 1500, and McCausland isn't the weakest candidate. Will Dodds' ego, and general disenchantment with the DUP party line, allow him to spread the votes around to McCausland, and new candidate William Humphrey, a Belfast City Councillor from the Woodvale area?

If the figures are closer to the Local Election than the General Election figures, then the DUP can't afford to leave a candidate stranded, especially when a quarter of Dodds' massive surplus went astray last time.

However, the Ulster Unionist party organisation barely exists in this constituency and their voters are continuing to move to Jordanstown, albeit at a slower pace than in the past. My money is on the DUP polling three solid quotas, and leaving themselves a bit more nervous than they should be for a while during the count, before prevailing easily enough in the end.

As for the other candidates, Alliance's vote has collapsed from the 6-8% level pre-ceasefire to a few hundred today. The Greens, Workers' Party and Rainbow George will do well to poll even that much. The 'great' Bob McCartney himself is running here as well as in five other constituencies, and will doubtless pick up a few votes, but the real imponderable is the candidacy of Raymond McCord. He crashed and burned last time with just 218 votes, but since then he has had a very high profile and seen the stand he took over his son's murder vindicated. My own view is that he would be doing very well to break into four figures, although if it's tight between Cobain and the DUP he may, in the end, be crucial in deciding the fate of the last seat. However, his candidacy is one of those great imponderables that might just spring a surprise on us all and makes elections interesting.

2003 vote - DUP 34.2%/2.39Q, SF 27.0%/1.89Q, SDLP 16.8%/1.18Q, UUP 9.4%/0.66Q, PUP 4.3%/0.30Q, Alliance 1.4%/0.07Q, Oth U 4.0%/0.28Q, Oth 3.3%/0.23Q.

Candidates - DUP: Nigel DODDS*, William HUMPHREY, Nelson McCAUSLAND*. SF: Gerry KELLY*, Caral NI CHUILIN. SDLP: Pat CONVERY, Alban MAGINNESS*. UUP: Fred COBAIN*. Alliance: Tommy McCULLOUGH. Green: Peter EMERSON. Ind: Raymond McCORD. Workers' Party: John LAVERY. Make Politicians History: George RAINBOW. UKUP: Bob McCARTNEY. (*=Sitting MLA)

Prediction: 3 DUP, 2 SF, 1 SDLP.
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