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Battle for North Belfast: Getting vote out is key to Dodds' re-election for DUP

By Liam Clarke

Published 17/04/2015

Nigel Dodds
Nigel Dodds

In North Belfast, Westminster elections are a numbers game, a sectarian headcount in less complementary terms, and the DUP are winning it.

Unionists have always won so far. The constituency has many nationalist and unionist enclaves like Ardoyne, New Lodge, Tigers Bay and Glenbryn. During the Troubles, 577 people were murdered here. Even County Armagh had 100 less.

It was the scene of the Holy Cross dispute and there is an on-going protest over the refusal to allow Ligoniel Orange lodges to march home past Ardoyne shops.

This history of inter-communal violence makes sectarian polarisation at election time.

In the 2011 local government elections it was 35.9% for the DUP and 30.5% for Sinn Fein. This time the candidates for the two parties are again Nigel Dodds (DUP) and Gerry Kelly (Sinn Fein).

The tendency has been for the UUP, who held the seat until 2001, and SDLP to decline. Mr Dodds is a possible future leader of the DUP and he will certainly lead its parliamentary party if elected. The DUP has guarded his back with a unionist pact which removes the UUP from the contest. As one DUP worker put it, "the deal made things nice and plain and simple. It is just a question of making sure they know to turn out. We have been experimenting with different engagement techniques to do that."

Mr Kelly is facing a challenge from Alban Maginness of the SDLP, who has played a strong anti-abortion card. He points out that the Catholic population is still 46.9%, compared to 45.7% for Protestants.

"The pact made the hill to Stormont higher but we can still make it," he said. He predicts that many UUP voters will not come out without a candidate.

Nelson McCausland, North Belfast MLA and former social development minister, proposed joint housing schemes in which both communities would have a share. Mr Kelly sees this as discrimination in allocation.

The DUP see this as a "persistent myth", arguing that loyalist areas like Ballysillan and Silverstream are largely made up of single-skinned concrete houses built after the Second World War.

Some loyalist areas like Torrens in the Oldpark area have already disappeared. The Protestant working-class exodus to the suburbs has been slowed. This is a contest more about getting the vote out than winning hearts and minds across the divide. Despite this, issues like the flags dispute and the Twaddell dispute do not come up on the doorsteps.

DUP and Sinn Fein canvassers have to ask people what they think, to get an opinion.

"Around Ardoyne people feel they have got a result on parading in that it is stopped, so they don't bring it up so much but they are nervous about it," Mr Kelly said.

Mr Kelly, a former IRA man, believes that Protestants have often left due to pressure from loyalist paramilitaries rather than republicans.

"If you look at the lower Shankill from the air you can see that it has been destroyed from the inside, not outside attacks. The areas will not repopulate until loyalist paramilitaries are tackled."

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