Belfast Telegraph

Battle lines drawn but who will win South Belfast?

Suzanne Breen goes out and about with the parties as they canvass the public for their vote

South Belfast is Northern Ireland's most intriguingly diverse constituency and that's reflected in the two main contenders for its Westminster seat.

You'd travel long and far to find more contrasting characters than Alasdair McDonnell and Emma Little Pengelly.

He's a big political bruiser who has been fighting elections for almost half a century.

His first one came in 1970 when he stood as a teenage civil rights candidate against the Rev Ian Paisley. He was hammered, but he eventually won a seat on Belfast City Council where he remained for over two decades.

McDonnell (67) has come up the ranks the hard way. Struggling to hold on to his Westminster seat is the last and biggest battle of his long political life. At exactly three decades his junior, Little Pengelly's pedigree is very different.

She's a relative newbie to elected politics, being co-opted from her job as a Stormont special adviser (spad) into an Assembly seat in 2015, which she then lost 10 months later.

Yet, just like McDonnell, this election probably is the last throw of the dice for her politically. A barrister by profession, a return to the Bar will surely beckon if she fails to get elected.

Given that she has generated a fair few negative headlines in her short political career, Little Pengelly is wisely running a low-key campaign. But let nobody think that she isn't putting everything into winning.

She's out from dawn to dusk, covering up to a dozen miles a day on the campaign trail.

"This isn't the best time to take a photograph, I've been rained on for hours!" she laughs as the Belfast Telegraph joins her on a wet and dismal afternoon in the working-class unionist Erinvale estate.

A stylish yellow mac and red white and blue w ellington boots protect her from the elements. She doesn't have to try hard to convince 83-year-old Christine McCloy to give her a vote.

Christine and a relative "can't stand that man McDonnell; he's just so arrogant". Neither is Michelle O'Neill popular - "that blonde woman in Sinn Fein is just Gerry Adams' mouthpiece".

Little Pengelly tells another resident, Margaret Patton: "We have the numbers to win, we just need the turnout".

The candidate claims that people are telling her "they don't know Alasdair McDonnell, they haven't seen him and they would like a change".

Most people are supportive of Little Pengelly, yet it's still not all plain-sailing. "I'll vote DUP but reluctantly," says Heather Shaw. "There has been far too much arguing among our politicians. Arlene should have stepped down during RHI. She shouldn't have let Sinn Fein hold us to ransom."

At several houses, people stress that the parties must stop bickering and get back to work at Stormont.

"You're the last person I want to see!" says a pensioner who opens the door to Little Pengelly. He refuses to take her leaflet. "I'd only put it in the bin," he says. "I'm sick of you politicians."

The candidate takes it in her stride. "That gentleman has quite a cynical way of looking at things. You get some characters and it's always interesting to hear their views. But generally I find that people are polite and lovely," she insists.

She is a big hit with four-year-old twins Scarlett and Evie Hill who splash about with her in their My Little Pony wellies. They tell her that the bad weather has kept them indoors where they've been painting their nails. "I wish I was at home painting my nails too," Little Pengelly jokes.

Their uncle Jamie praises the "brilliant work" that she has done in Taughmonagh and says he wouldn't think of voting for anybody else.

Pensioner Herbie Harvey says it's a shame that she lost her Assembly seat. "If you're punched in the face, you just have to get back up and try again," she tells him. Herbie hopes that the DUP can win next Thursday. He remembers the days when "unionists ruled this city big time". He tells Little Pengelly: "We don't want the other crowd to get in this time. We don't like that mob up here.

"I've even seen Irish language posters on (the Lisburn Road). I'd like to tear them down but I'd probably be put in jail for that."

In her car, Little Pengelly has four or five pairs of shoes and a tin of fruit sweets for canvassers "in case blood sugars get low". She's a pro-Brexit candidate in a constituency which voted 67% to Remain.

But Brexit doesn't come up once during the Erinvale canvass. Most core unionist voters share the DUP's position, and those who don't will likely vote for the party regardless.

The DUP is the biggest party in South Belfast, coming in marginally ahead of the SDLP in the last two Assembly elections.

If Little Pengelly consolidates this base, secures the support of most of the 1,000 plus voters who have opted for Ukip or the TUV in previous elections, and convinces some soft Ulster Unionists to switch to her, she will take the seat.

The UUP in South Belfast is now a shadow of its former self but in Lisburn and Castlereagh councillor Michael Henderson, they have a very credible candidate.

A former Mayor of Castlereagh with 26 years in the armed forces behind him, he put his party's vote up in March, although it's impossible to see him winning the Westminster seat.

He's joined on a canvass in Carryduff by his four-year-old grandson Alexander who sports a 'Vote For My Grandpa' hoodie.

Chip van owner, Harvey Hewitt, says he's voting for the UUP candidate: "If you need anything done, Michael's the man. He doesn't fob you off. He's a real politician for the people.

"I wouldn't think of voting for any other unionist. They may say he can't win, but we should let him have a crack at it."

Around the corner, Samantha Bell agrees: "Michael is lovely. I've a child with autism and he's helped me so much.

"I wouldn't vote DUP. I don't agree with a lot of their policies. They're opposed to equal marriage and I have gay friends."

Alliance isn't far behind the DUP and SDLP in South Belfast. In local MLA Paula Bradshaw, they have a consistently high-polling candidate. Yet it's a struggle to see the party increasing its vote enough to take the seat.

The Greens' Clare Bailey has tripled her party's support in six years, polling 4,247 votes (10%) in March's Assembly election. Many of these are former SDLP voters whom McDonnell desperately needs to win back.

Canvassing with Bailey in the Four Winds, some people say they will "lend" McDonnell their vote. "You're a great girl Clare, but I'll have to vote for the SDLP to stop the DUP taking the seat," one woman says.

Others are struggling to make up their minds. One man is sticking with the Greens: "People say it's just tactical but it's an election, not a horse race. You should always back somebody you're proud of," he declares.

Sinn Fein is now breathing down the SDLP's neck in South Belfast in a development that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In March's Assembly election, the party secured 18% support to the SDLP's 20%.

Mairtin O Muilleoir is a Sinn Fein politician who doesn't scare the middle-class and his confident self-promotion, aided by a strong party machine, have reaped dividends.

But he will have to convince a substantial number of SDLP and Green voters that he is a better alternative to the DUP than McDonnell if he is to go close.

The SDLP machine on the ground doesn't seem as strong and slick as it once was. Yet McDonnell has the advantage of incumbency and, at the doors, many people do see it as a straight fight between him and Little Pengelly.

"I know the DUP are putting up a big effort and I'm doing that too," he says. "I'm in a constituency that was unionist. I've survived, difficult though it has been, for many years.

"I took this seat in 2005 against all the odds. I'd love to be in a constituency where I didn't have to work too hard and the votes would just come out, but I play the hand I've been dealt."

He is "quite confident" that he will hold the seat but acknowledges: "I have to win back votes from all over the place." He is joined on the campaign trail by his two charming sons, Oisin (14) and Ruairi (16) who has interrupted his studying for 11 GCSEs to help his dad.

SDLP canvassers say that Little Pengelly is unpopular on the doorsteps, particularly with NHS workers, and that many householders "roll their eyes" at the very mention of her name.

Canvassing the middle-class Rosetta area in a smart pin-striped suit, McDonnell talks to residents mostly about the dangers of Brexit. He spends a long time at each house discussing its effect on sterling, the price of steel, staff and funding for Queen's University, business costs and protection for workers.

He jokes with a man, originally from Derry, that soon citizens of that city "will need a passport to walk their dogs on Buncrana Strand". His canvassers tell residents that their man is "super-connected" and "will fight a great fight" on Brexit.

The response is mixed. Gillian McCullough comes to the door clutching her bearded dragon, Smaug, to her chest. She jokes that her pet lizard "eats crickets, not politicians". She normally votes Alliance, but will likely defect to the SDLP this time to stop the DUP taking the seat.

At one of the grandest properties in the area, the female professional who opens the door is polite to McDonnell. But she tells the Belfast Telegraph she won't support him. "You never see him from one election to another. I'm voting for Sinn Fein," she says.

McDonnell seems most popular among older voters and those originally from rural areas. A young father from outside Omagh says that he is a "great grafter" and will be getting his vote.

Pensioner Joan McGettrick and her husband and son are also supporting the SDLP man. "He has been our family doctor for years and he works very hard for everybody," she says.

McDonnell's opposition to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality jar with some in this mostly liberal constituency. But the SDLP candidate says he is proud that his party is pro-life.

"We've stood against the Provos when they were fighting a campaign and we've stood against euthanasia. We believe that a defenceless infant is entitled to some say," he adds.

The SDLP MP's anti-Brexit stance is his biggest selling point in this election, and he knows it. Straight-talking and blunt in his political message and manner, McDonnell is very much an old school politician.

The big question is whether or not those non-unionists, who don't see eye-to-eye on him on everything, swallow their doubts and support him next Thursday in order to keep the DUP out.

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