Belfast Telegraph

East Belfast looks like a two horse race but who will win in key battleground

Suzanne Breen goes out on the streets and sees how confident Gavin Robinson and Naomi Long are of victory

Gavin Robinson is strolling through the loyalist Ballybeen estate when a driver spots him, stops his car and winds down the window. "Vote Alliance!" he bellows at the DUP candidate.

Robinson knows it's a wind-up. Craig Mullan is a director of the Ballybeen Improvement Group and a staunch DUP supporter.

"We need Gavin elected for the next five years," he tells the Belfast Telegraph. "Naomi Long was a disaster as our MP. She spent all her time helping the middle-class in Ballyhackamore. She was useless for us."

"You're not bad for a Manchester United fan!" Robinson (who supports West Ham) banters back.

In this sprawling estate, where over 8,000 people live, there is extensive support for the DUP. But that isn't the story in other places. East Belfast is a hugely divided constituency.

Just over a decade ago, the DUP ruled the roost, securing over 50% of the vote and outpolling Alliance by more than five-to-one. Now, the race seems too close to call.

Naomi Long is the 4/6 favourite with Paddy Power but McLean bookmakers have Robinson at 4/5 to take the seat.

The figures from recent elections seem to favour the DUP who are very confident they will hold it. Yet Alliance are genuinely upbeat about their chances. Long inspires intense loyalty among her supporters. Both parties have strong teams on the ground.

The last Long versus Robinson head-to-head in 2015 was a very high-profile affair. The DUP believes that the lower key campaign this time, with minimal media coverage and no hustings, suits them.

"I think Alliance will get a strong vote, but I get no sense that the result will be as close as two years ago," Robinson predicts.

This time, there's no unionist pact as the UUP are contesting the seat. The DUP believes this deprives Alliance of the moral high ground. "I'm glad you're standing on your own two feet this time son," one man tells Robinson.

His three-year-old son Reuben sits on his shoulders. A woman getting out of a taxi gives the child £1. "Do I have to declare this in my election expenses?" his father jokes.

During the last election, Robinson seemed edgy and uncomfortable. This time, he is at ease. "What are you doing wearing an Alliance coat?" he teases a woman wearing a yellow rain mac.

Karen McWilliams, who is out walking her dog Jake, promises her vote. "Our family has always supported the DUP. We wouldn't consider Alliance or the Ulster Unionists. We voted for the other Robinson (Peter) before you," she says.

"Do you fancy doing a bit of canvassing?" the candidate asks. "I wouldn't be up to it," she says. "I'm not long after a knee replacement."

DUP canvassers are led by veteran councillor Tommy Jeffers. "I'm very active in the local credit union so when people see me coming to their door, they may be scared that I'm looking for money!" he laughs.

Another canvasser is Stephen Warke, who was a UUP member for over a decade until he left the party last year. "I joined the DUP because of Arlene. She was far more dynamic than Mike Nesbitt. He was great for soundbites but he didn't deliver."

Warke predicts that his former party's days are numbered. "The UUP will be gone in 10 years' time," he says. "Every party needs money and they may not have much soon. They could lose one MP or more in this election and, after Brexit, they won't have an MEP. It's sad," he says.

The social and economic deprivation in Ballybeen is clear. Robinson says that the pressing concern for most residents isn't "high politics" but issues such as a lack of official investment and poor street lighting and paving. "People here feel neglected," he says.

DUP support can run as high as 75% in parts of the estate, he claims, but the big challenge for the party is "turnout which is not as strong as it could be".

East Belfast narrowly voted to Leave but Brexit has hardly featured at the doors, according to Robinson. "A number of EU nationals working here have raised it and that's understandable because they're worried about their own positions.

"But the only Belfast native who has mentioned it told me to make sure we get a hard border," he says.

Many front gardens in Ballybeen are overgrown with weeds but Esther McKee's is ablaze with colour. "The only problem is that the orange lilies are out too early," she laments. "They'll never last until next month."

"Plant them on St Patrick's Day to have them blooming on the Twelfth!" advises the candidate. He asks her to "put a wee kiss" beside his name on Thursday.

"I wouldn't vote any other way," she says. "I've seen you in the Bean Cafe getting a fry and you're a fine lad. You're fighting to keep the flag flying and that's all that matters."

Just around the corner from the DUP's Dundela Avenue Belfast headquarters, Alliance are out in force. The reception couldn't be better. While residents engage with other canvassers, there's one demand on every other doorstep, "Can we have a wee word with Naomi?"

Here, the Alliance leader is the star turn, especially with female voters. "I appreciate you and all you've gone through," says Maureen McGann, gripping the candidate's hand.

"You're honest and you keep your word. I believe in you. I've no time for the others. I want a society based on equality and respect."

Several civil servants, who ask not to be named, voice strong support for Alliance. "I'd vote for any party to keep out the DUP," one says. "I'm fed up and disgusted about how they oppose everything progressive here."

Oakland Avenue resident Carol Gillespie voted for Brexit and argues with Long on the issue, but will still support her. "Naomi has done a fantastic job. I couldn't possibly vote for the DUP," she explains.

Further down the street, at the home of Harriet Long (no relation) and Andrew McCracken, the couple's two young sons show the candidate their fidget spinners.

"We like Alliance's policies," says Harriet. "Naomi has got great common sense and we need more of that in Northern Ireland."

Andrew says that Alliance is a breath of fresh air in a sea of sectarian politics.

The couple hope that the Tories will soon be out of office. "I wasn't a Corbyn fan," Long tells them. "I always thought he was a poor performer in the House of Commons. I'm quite surprised that he's done so well in this election. I think it's because he's a campaigner by nature. Theresa May is awkward."

Some houses have Alliance leaflets displayed in their windows. "People often ask for them as a way of keeping DUP canvassers out," Long jokes.

The Alliance team are sporting Glentoran FC badges that the club sent them in tribute to lifelong fan, Councillor Mervyn Jones, who died last week and stories of Jones' canvassing escapades are retold with pride.

Long receives a warm welcome at the home of Wendy McCay. "I always vote Alliance," she says. "I've my fingers crossed for you, Naomi. Alliance is for everybody. I have gay friends and I feel that it's the only inclusive party.

"I'm fed up with orange and green politics and Stormont being a mess. I've a son with special needs and, if the politicians don't get their act together, the help that he needs to get through life mightn't be there."

Long tells McCay that the campaign has been exciting but exhausting. "I'm running on empty," she says.

Some observers believe that Alliance vote peaked in the constituency in 2015 and that the party can't win the seat, but the candidate disagrees. "Last time round, the unionist pact dispirited some of our supporters," she says.

"They thought we were beat before we began. That isn't the case now. People think we can win. Our voters are very motivated to come out and our party membership has expanded so we have more canvassers on the ground."

She says that her track record is of working passionately for everyone in the constituency from Short Strand to Ballybeen.

The craic on the campaign trail is provided by local councillor Carole Howard. "My daughter's getting married next year and I'm on the lookout for a plus one. I met a nice man earlier, beautifully dressed, and he was an Alliance supporter. I couldn't be having a DUP man at all!" she laughs.

Long jokes that canvassing is a great way for her colleague to find a partner, "because you get to check out their house, their car, and all that stuff!"

Councillor Howard says the campaign is going strong with Alliance picking up support in previously luke-warm areas. She knows the DUP MP very well. "Gavin's parents were neighbours, and my son Andrew grew up with him.

"It was obvious from an early age that Gavin was destined for public life. He was assertive and outgoing. Despite our different politics, we're still on friendly terms. He even tried to fix me up at a count once!" she jokes.

A mile away in Belmont, the Green Party's Georgina Milne and her team are canvassing for support. Born and bred in the Albertbridge Road, she knows the constituency well.

East Belfast now has two ginger ninjas in the election race but Milne is keen to lay out her own individual stall.

"Some people may mistake me from a distance for Naomi but I've very much my own story to tell," she says. "I've a PhD in climate change and I'm a statistician. I'm standing for election as an objective decision-maker who reaches conclusions based on fact, not spin."

A voter in Strathearn Park tells her he doesn't believe in climate change. "A Donald Trump supporter I think!" she jokes.

Over in Gilnahirk, the Ulster Unionists are out with candidate Hazel Legge. Lord Empey leads the charge. "I'm increasingly wary of dogs," he jokes. "You see fierce ones looking out the window at you and the dilemma is 'Will I or won't I risk it'?"

It's a plush area where the houses have names like 'Cherrytrees', and big pots of daisies and fuschia line driveways.

Legge has been employed by UUP headquarters for over 20 years. She first entered electoral politics when she won a council seat in 2014. She has worked for six UUP leaders - Lord Molyneaux, David Trimble, Lord Empey, Tom Elliott, Mike Nesbitt and Robin Swann. "But don't ask me who is my favourite, that would be like asking a mother to pick her favourite child," she says.

The lack of a unionist pact has been raised occasionally on the doors, she reveals, "but Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson have both said that the DUP don't need a pact and are happy for us to stand so we're not at loggerheads over that".

It isn't hitting the headlines like it did two years ago, but East Belfast remains a fascinating race. And, despite the absence of head-to-head public clashes, it's still every inch a bitter battleground between Alliance and the DUP.

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