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Election: West Belfast won't wake up to shock poll result

By Noel McAdam

Few would disagree that West Belfast is one of Sinn Fein's safest Westminster seats.

It was first secured by Gerry Adams in 1983, who took it off Gerry Fitt, who by the time of the election had quit the SDLP and contested the campaign as an Independent Socialist.

And when the party president went to the Republic as a TD, it has been the terrain of his successor Paul Maskey, who took the seat in the by-election of 2011.

Maskey owes his Westminster seat to Gerry Adams' voluntary redundancy.

But there was little doubt Sinn Fein would retain the constituency when Adams vacated in favour of Louth after nearly 30 years (not counting the years between 1992 and 1997 when the seat was held by the SDLP's Joe Hendron).

Maskey's succession was the first Westminster by-election in Northern Ireland since 2000 (South Antrim) and the first caused by a resignation since the mass by-elections of 1986.

Going back even further into the history books, it was also first caused by a voluntary resignation, according to Nicholas Whyte's election site, "where the incumbent did not seek re-election since the Armagh by-election of 1954, when Major Richard Harden decided to spend more time on his Welsh family estate".

But in the end Maskey had little trouble repeating the success of Adams.

He came in with a comfortable 16,211 vote (more than 70% of the vote share) compared to 3,088 for the SDLP's Alex Attwood.

It was hardly a surprise in Sinn Fein's strongest constituency, where Adams enjoyed the fourth highest majority in the UK.

But it was the lowest turnout ever seen (just under 38%) in a Northern Ireland parliamentary election.

Nontheless there is little doubt that Maskey will hold on to the seat this time. It would take a massive upheaval from one of the entirely male line-up of rival candidates to shift him.

The Belfast Telegraph's polling partners LucidTalk says he is a "racing certainty".

Perhaps the most unusual - and bravest - candidate is Conservative Paul Shea, from Newcastle upon Tyne, who has pledged to canvass widely across a constituency which is historically anti-Tory. Ukip candidate Brian Higginson has said he has no recollection of past social media messages, including an unsavoury joke, but has been forgiven by the party in any case.

Ulster Unionist stalwart Bill Manwaring will be hoping to improve on his 2010 election total of 386 votes, while for Alliance, Gerard Catney will seek to advance the vote achieved by Aaron McIlntrye's totalling 122.

People Before Profit's Belfast councillor Gerry Carroll will be hoping to increase his support.

The economy and the impact of austerity are the main issue in West Belfast where the economic statistics remain grim.

Almost 40% of the population have no qualifications - the percentage with degrees or higher is 15% - and more than 40% are economically inactive, whether retired, sick or disabled.

Belfast Telegraph


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