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South Belfast: Ruth Patterson v Emma Little Pengelly in fierce tussle for unionist hearts and minds in constituency

We join the candidates canvassing in South Belfast, a fascinating battleground where a bitter split within the DUP will be judged at ballot box

By Suzanne Breen

Published 26/04/2016

DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly canvassing in South Belfast
DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly canvassing in South Belfast
Emma Little Pengelly with her father Noel
Independent unionist Ruth Patterson talks with Billy Lawder while canvassing in Belfast
Ruth Patterson canvassing in Belfast

Rarely has a politician generated so much controversy - even before they were elected - as DUP rising star Emma Little Pengelly. But, if she is feeling pressure as she takes to the campaign trail in South Belfast, she wears it well.

On a sparkling spring evening she climbs the hilly pavements of Four Winds.

"Coming from an office job, it's a steep learning curve for me to see what works wardrobe-wise while canvassing," Little Pengelly jokes.

"I'm normally a dress-and-heels girl so I've had to get the right footwear and buy items suitable for being on the go outside eight hours a day.

"Clothing has to be practical but people still want you to look smart."

Pengelly was a special adviser (Spad) to Peter Robinson co-opted by the DUP leadership into the Assembly last year- with local councillors Ruth Patterson and Christopher Stalford overlooked.

Patterson was expelled after calling Little Pengelly "a well-paid blow-in", and is standing as an independent. Her supporters believe she can snatch the final sixth seat.

Stalford is Little Pengelly's running-mate and, with only one DUP seat guaranteed, it's a fascinating contest.

Little Pengelly hit the headlines after receiving a £45,000 golden handshake when she stepped down as a Stormont Spad. There were also claims, which were denied, that she changed her name to Emma Little Pengelly - her maiden name was Little - to appear higher on the ballot paper.

Out canvassing, she is unfailingly gracious and there is no sign of any controversy.

"Despite the media spin about me, people on the doors can see the real me," she says."I'm friendly and I love helping people. I also do the detail on policy issues. I've worked hard for this constituency and attended hundreds of events this year. It's lovely when mothers bring their young daughters out to meet me. I hope my candidacy encourages more young women into politics.

"The odd person has mentioned my severance pay, but, overwhelmingly, it's not come up."

Neither has her name been raised negatively, she says. "Pengelly is an unusual name and people are interested in its origins. It's a medieval Cornish name. Someone suggested putting a 'Miss' in between 'Little' and 'Pengelly', and I thought that was quite cute."

At one house a dog barks vociferously as the candidate knocks. "Don't worry, I've a lovely wee dog, Poppy, at home," she explains to the apologetic householder. "I grew up with cats, dogs, hamsters and goldfish. I'm at ease with animals, which is a plus in South Belfast as about 80% of homes have pets."

Her father Noel Little, who was arrested in 1989 in Paris on loyalist gun-running charges and convicted two years later, is canvassing with her. "I've no crystal ball but she should get elected," he says. "I'm so proud of her. She's very determined and set her sights high from no age."

A mile away Stalford pounds the streets in the working-class Belvoir estate.

The bookies believe both DUP candidates will be elected - undoubtedly due to the 'Arlene factor' - but have Little Pengelly as the favourite. Stalford is running a positive campaign.

"I was born and reared in Annadale Flats, No 95," he says. "My daddy, who died when I was seven, was a Sandy Row man. I'm working-class through and through. I've been a local councillor for 11 years and I'm an Orangeman. I've secured funding for Ballynafeigh and Sandy Row Orange halls. I'm in a strong position to take a seat."

His mum Karen is on the campaign trail.

"We weren't a political family but I wasn't surprised when Christopher went into politics," she says. "He was argumentative and mischievous from childhood."

Stalford's square image belies the reality, and the banter among his bolshie election team is lively. "Here's Christopher modelling the latest swimwear," one canvasser quips as the candidate poses for photographs for the Belfast Telegraph.

Sinn Fein businessman Mairtin O Muilleoir is set to top the poll. Alliance and SDLP are sure of a seat each.

Alliance's Paula Bradshaw has strong election form locally and is clear favourite over party colleague Duncan Morrow.

The SDLP's Claire Hanna should out-poll colleague Fearghal McKinney, although if the party secures even 80% of its Westminster vote both will be returned.

Hanna, who has impressed on TV as a warm, down-to-earth politician, says: "South Belfast is not a Balkanised constituency. Residents of all faiths and none are integrated and it's a role model for the rest of Northern Ireland. People are switched off by Stormont but not by politics. And they're glad to see the SDLP getting its act together. I hope our vote reflects that."

South Belfast was once staunch Ulster Unionist territory but the party's support has plummeted in the past decade and Rodney McCune faces a tough battle retaining Michael McGimpsey's seat. But the young barrister is waging a vigorous campaign and can't be written off. He's well positioned to benefit from transfers.

Ukip's Bob Stoker won almost 2,000 votes in the Westminster election and should poll well again. The one to watch is the Green Party's Clare Bailey, who secured almost 2,200 votes in the general election. The Greens could profit from a protest vote in NI's most liberal constituency by those sick of sectarian issues dominating the political agenda.

Bailey volunteers for the Marie Stopes clinic as a client escort and says she will continue with that role of helping women if elected to Stormont.

"Our stance on the equality agenda - on gay rights and the right-to-choose on abortion - is winning support at the doors," she says.

'Vote Bailey to make history' her canvassers' sweatshirts declare. "Our team is really excited as this is the closest we've ever come to taking a seat in South Belfast," she adds.

The big personality in the election is independent unionist Ruth Patterson. She's warmly welcomed on the lower Ravenhill Road.

"In streets like this I don't feel like I'm with voters, I feel like I'm with family," she says.

An earringed young man pledges his vote. Disabled pensioners Henry and Irene ask Patterson to get the Housing Executive to pave their garden.

"If Martin McGuinness becomes First Minister I'll leave the country," Henry says. "I was an innocent victim shot by the Paras on the Shankill and I've still the bullets in me. I got £2,000 compensation, when an IRA man who sprained his ankle in Long Kesh got £10,000. These people are getting away with murder. Unionists need to stand up to them."

Patterson tells him: "Our people have been left behind by the political process but, in me, they have a voice."

'TRuth' proclaim her posters.

"In my community they say: 'Our Ruth tells the truth'," she adds.

Her campaign is run on a shoestring budget, without any machine, but she loves "having the freedom to be my own woman". She won't predict her chances of getting elected. "It's in the hands of the Lord," she adds.

"If it's to be, it will be."

As Patterson puts up posters, one driver winds down his window and calls her "an Orange b*****d". The candidate sticks out her tongue at him.

"Cheeky article, holding up traffic to abuse me," she laughs.

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