Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte
West Belfast contains 13 wards from the City of Belfast and 4 wards from the neighbouring City of Lisburn. The four Lisburn wards cover the Twinbrook and Poleglass areas and are outward extensions of the Falls/Andersonstown area in cultural, political and family terms. The vast bulk of the constituency consists of the Greater Falls, starting in Divis Street and proceeding along the Falls, Andersonstown and Stewartstown Roads and ending at the back of Twinbrook, although not including the Lagmore area over the border in Lagan Valley. The M1 motorway, mountains and the depth of residential segregation means that the only exception to this homogeneous political world is the tiny Protestant enclave of Suffolk.
Bolted on to this, rather uneasily, are two parts of the Greater Shankill - the depressed Lower Shankill is one part. The other, which cannot be reached from the Lower Shankill without passing through a peaceline, or North Belfast, consists of the estates around Glencairn and the West Circular Road, along with the rather more upmarket housing on the Ballygomartin Road.
Finally, there are a few hundred voters in the Mountainview area, far off on the Crumlin Road, and effectively a middle-class extension of Ardoyne. Boundary commmissioners are odd creatures sometimes.
For once, popular perception paints a pretty accurate picture - West Belfast is by far the most Catholic of the 18 constituencies (82.7% Catholic, 16.2% Protestant), and by almost every measure it is also the poorest constituency. 80% of the census areas in West Belfast are among the poorest 20% in Northern Ireland. It contains Northern Ireland's poorest ward (Shankill) and it's poorest sub-ward census area (the Westrock and Springhill estates, part of Gerry Adams' Whiterock/Ballymurphy heartland). Over two-thirds of children were born to unmarried mothers in 2004.
There are middle-class pockets, particularly in Andersonstown, Ladybrook and Glengoland as well as at Lyndhurst at the very top of the Greater Shankill. Even these areas struggle to meet Northern Ireland economic averages, however, and for all the political divisions of the constituency, relative poverty is the norm either side of the peaceline.
Again conforming to stereotypes, a mammoth 28% of the population are aged under 16 (4% above the Northern Ireland average) and, in dramatic contrast to elderly North Belfast, there are slightly fewer pensioners than the Northern Ireland average. Young families, often headed by a single mother, are the dominant demogrpahic here. The fertility rate is above the Northern Ireland average (1.95), although still below replacement levels and unexceptional by the standards of developed countries. Rather confounding the conventional stereotypes, the birth rate is even higher in the Greater Shankill than in the rest of West Belfast - young, single-parent families dominate here too, although a rather higher proportion of the Shankill population are of pensionable age.
Clearly many people leave the area when they get the chance - while nearly two-fifths of young people go on to further education, only 8.3% of the local population has a degree.
As one might expect from such a demographic profile, Sinn Féin dominate the constituency, indeed they dominate it in a way that no party does anywhere else in Northern Ireland. In 2003, West Belfast elected 4 SF, 1 SDLP and 1 DUP MLAs. As you can see from the detailed figures on Nicholas Whyte's website, Sinn Féin came within a whisker - 87 votes - of making it 5 out of 6 at the expense of the DUP.
The first question that must be asked is why that unionist seat is under pressure at all - as we saw above, 16.2% of the population is from a Protestant background, and the proportion of Protestants among the over 18s is higher yet. Only 14.2% of the vote is needed to be guaranteed a seat under any circumstances.
There are two main reasons why the Unionist parties have struggled to reach that mark - the most important is differential turnout, but the fragmentation of their vote is also important.
Let's look at differential turnout first. There is no question that people on the Falls are better at getting out and voting than people on the Shankill. I've heard people on Slugger claim that the turnout in 2003 was 74% in Nationalist areas and only 59% in Unionist areas. That doesn't quite fit the figures, but it's certain that differential turnout is significant. For example, in the City Council elections in 2005, turnout in Lower Falls was 68%, in Upper Falls 68%, in Court only 57%. My own view is that this gap is closing as turnout falls across West Belfast (from 74% in the 1997 General Election to just 64% in the 2005 one). Still, a 10% differential might be less than the traditional handicap for Unionists here, but it's hardly nothing either.
That meant that the combined vote for candidates from the Unionist tradition in 2003 was 4754 - just 60 more than the quota, or 14.4%. That's just a bit too tight to be certain of a seat if there are a large number of Unionist candidates in the race. In 2003, Diane Dodds ran alongside UUP and PUP competitors as well as an Independent from the Highfield area. Transfers are never 100% perfect - some voters just like to buck the party line, others insist on voting for one candidate only, or three candidates only. At the crucial point in the count when both the UUP and PUP were eliminated together, only a miserable 70% of their votes transferred to Dodds. That was nearly enough to cost Unionists their seat.
Two factors will make things easier for Dodds this time. Firstly, only the UUP will run a candidate to challenge Dodds from the Unionist side. Moreover, the DUP have considerably bolstered their position within West Belfast unionism - in 2003 they took just over half of unionist votes in West Belfast. By the time the Westminster election in 2005 came, they were outpolling the UUP by a ratio of 9:2. The DUP are less dependent on UUP transfers, and more masters of their own fate than before, although they will still want to try and increase their dismal rate of transfers from the UUP.
And that's where the second ameliorative factor comes in. I haven't seen anyone else mention the significance of this, but Joe Hendron will not be on the ballot paper in West Belfast. It's hardly a trade secret that in the 1992 and 1997 general elections, Hendron pulled a significant tactical vote from the Shankill, much to the annoyance of Sinn Féin. What is less remarked on is that a small section of that vote stayed loyal to Hendron right to the end.
In 2003, on the elimination of the UUP and PUP, 12% of their transfers, or 259 votes transferred to Hendron. When Hendron was himself eliminated, 112 of his 3000-odd votes transferred to the DUP, and it's reasonable to assume at least a small portion of the 416 votes that didn't transfer from him - even to Alex Attwood - were voters who transferred to the UUP and/or PUP and then stopped. With Hendron out and only two unionist candidates in the running, it is likely that more of these votes will end up on the DUP pile by the end of the count.
All of that makes the DUP position better than it was in 2003 - as long as they can get their voters out in the first place.
If the Unionists struggle to manage electoral famine in West Belfast, then Sinn Féin struggle to manage a feast of votes. In 2003, they polled 4.55 Quotas (65.0%), and assisted by efficient transferring of a small portion of Joe Hendron's vote, which passed through Attwood and three Sinn Féin candidates, fell just 87 votes short of winning five seats.
In 2005, they advanced even on that position, polling an astonishing 70.5% of the vote in the General Election. That would see them within 250 votes or so of five quotas, and that would be enough for the five seats. However, I don't think they're going to quite poll that in this election.
Firstly, in recent years Adams in General Elections has tended to outpoll the SF team in Assembly elections.
Secondly, Adams will top the poll and some of his surplus will leak. Last time, roughly 15% of his surplus, or 167 votes were lost to the Shinners. And there is a limit to the extent they can afford to keep Adams' vote down; would you like to be the Sinn Féin press officer who had to explain to the world how their party leader (and alleged demigod) lost his seat in a quixotic, and failed, attempt to squeeze an extra seat? No, I can't see that happening either, so Adams will have to be allowed to poll 6000 or so votes, and SF will effectively lose about 150 of them.
Thirdly, Sinn Féin were significantly helped last time by having about 1600 votes transferred from the SDLP at various stages. With less SDLP votes in play, there will in turn be fewer votes transferred from the SDLP to SF. Indeed, SF will probably have very few transfers to come from other parties at all. That raises the bar for them further.
Finally, it is very hard to balance five candidates, even when one of them isn't called Gerry Adams. Sinn Féin are as good as it gets at this sort of game, but there ain't no such thing as perfection. Last time, Adams topped the poll with 6199 votes, the three middle candidates were very well balanced with between 3800 and 4100, while Sue Ramsey was left somewhat stranded on 2988. That's pretty good shootin', but had Ramsey not been quite so adrift on the first count, or got more than a measly proportion of Adams' Stage 2 transfers, she probably would have been elected. They might do a little better this time, but there is a limit. And Dodds will probably be closer to a final stage quota this time than she was last time.
All of this means that I think Sinn Féin need to be very close to the 5 quota mark, say polling around 69-70%, before they can be confident of taking five seats. I don't know they can do that this year. They are going to have to work to get their vote out, and while Republican Sinn Féin's Geraldine Taylor will not get the vote that her colleagues in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh will, the Republican base is so big here that she must be looking at a reasonable four figure vote - say around 1500-2000. Even if one previous SF voter in 20 stayed at home, and one in 40 voted for Taylor and failed to transfer, Sinn Féin would be 1600 votes down. They can't afford that. Three months ago, I would have laid a big bet on 5 Shinners being elected here, but I just don't see it quite happening this year.
Finally, there's the SDLP. The SDLP are in freefall here. They polled 26% in the Forum elections of 1996, but only 14.6% in the 2005 General Election. That is serious danger territory. As it turns out, I don't think the SDLP drop as low as 15% for the reasons I outlined in the section on Sinn Féin. However, their SDLP decision to run two candidates when they barely have a quota is still playing with fire. The SDLP need to fight a strong defensive campaign; Margaret Walsh, lovely lady though she be, will not add much of a vote that Attwood can't and when she is eliminated, the SDLP will lose the usual plumpers and leakers to Sinn Féin. However, Margaret is one of those rarest of things - an SDLP member who actually lives within a short walk of the Falls Road. That highlights how parlous the SDLP's position is in West Belfast. They have no organisation to speak of here any more. But for all the reasons of Republican disaffection outlined above, I don't think this is the election for them to be wiped out in West Belfast. 2011? That's a different matter.
Alliance are running here to prove they're an NI-wide party; the Workers' Party are running because the 300-odd votes they get here will be the most they get anywhere; and Rainbow George is running because he runs everywhere.
The final candidate is Seán Mitchell of the 'People Before Profit Alliance'. Mitchell is 19 years old, and had the law changed so that he could stand; until a few weeks ago, candidates had to be aged at least 21. He's bright, articulate, media savvy and running on a popular platform of opposing water charges and the War in Iraq. Mitchell will do much better if people do not work out that he is a member of the Socialist Workers' Party.
2003 vote - SF 65.0%/4.55Q, SDLP 19.0%/1.33Q, DUP 7.7%/0.54Q, UUP 3.6%/0.25Q, Alliance 0.2%/0.02Q, Oth U 3.2%/0.22Q, WP 1.2%/0.09Q.
Candidates - SF: Gerry ADAMS*, Paul MASKEY, Fra McCANN*, Jennifer McCANN, Sue RAMSEY*. SDLP: Alex ATTWOOD*, Margaret WALSH*. DUP: Diane DODDS*. UUP: Louis WEST. Workers' Party: John LOWRY. Alliance: Dan McGUINNESS. Make Politicians History: George RAINBOW. People Before Profit: Sean Mitchell. Republican SF+: Geraldine Taylor. (*=Sitting MLA; +=Will appear on the ballot without a party description)
Prediction: 4 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 DUP.