West Belfast: Gerry Carroll takes fight to Sinn Fein with the bookies’ favourite confident of breaking stranglehold
People Before Profit newcomer challenging republican domination of West Belfast as DUP sets sights on retaking seat lost nine years ago
In the election amphitheatre of West Belfast, Gerry Carroll has pulled no punches. He has gone toe-to-toe with Sinn Fein and, to the surprise of many, is not only still standing but is on course for a historic victory next week.
But is the People Before Profit candidate up to a real-life scrap in the boxing ring?
"Do you not think I can handle myself?" Carroll asks as I look on warily when he dons gloves to take on Brendan 'Rooster' Irvine, the youngest member of the Irish Olympic boxing team.
Lo and behold, Gerry throws jabs, hooks and uppercuts like a professional
"Ach, he's a sound guy," says Irvine at the end of the rumble in St Paul's Amateur Boxing Club (ABC) in Andersonstown.
The 19-year-old Rio-bound flyweight fighter, who won silver at last year's European games, is backing Carroll.
"I'm a first-time voter and I'm fully behind him. He's always helping people. There's nobody else like him," he says.
That feeling is strong in St Paul's ABC, where local youngsters are learning how to box.
"We keep the kids off the streets and we teach them alcohol and drugs awareness too," says coach Ralph McKay.
"Gerry Carroll is brilliant. He can't do enough for the kids. He's the only local politician who is really committed."
Like McKay, club volunteer Gerard McCaughley is a disillusioned former Sinn Fein voter. "I used to vote for them, but never again," he says.
The 28-year-old People Before Profit candidate surprised many people when he won 19% of the vote in last year's Westminster election, more than trebling his previous year's council tally. Sinn Fein's support fell by 17%.
Carroll is the bookies' favourite to top the poll on Thursday. "The major issue is welfare cuts and the axing of 20,000 public sector jobs that Sinn Fein voted for at Stormont," he says.
"This area has the highest poverty rates in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein claims to be left-wing yet it's implementing a rotten austerity programme.
"From domestics and porters in the Royal Victoria Hospital scraping a living on low wages, to those terrified they'll lose their Disability Living Allowance, I've met so many people who feel totally betrayed."
With his army of enthusiastic and energetic young workers, Carroll makes his way through Riverdale. In their jeans and trainers, they throw up memories of Sinn Fein election teams from days gone by before the party joined the establishment.
"You've three votes in here," says a barefoot David Main (24), who answers the door of his family home."
So why does he like Carroll? "He's the only one who knocks your door when it's not election time and asks if there's anything he can help with," David says.
Up the street, the candidate introduces himself to grandmother Anne Connolly. "I know who you are, son" she replies. "You've called with us before. We only see the other crowd when they want something." There's even a hug and kiss for Carroll as he leaves.
Anne's daughter, Michelle Walsh, is also voting for him. She complains about a graffiti-covered wall opposite her home. Carroll pledges to get the council on the ball.
In Trench Park, Anthony Keenan promises his vote. "I like what Gerry stands for. He'll make a difference," he says.
The candidate shows chivalry on the campaign trail by offering to carry a bag full of leaflets he worries is too heavy for a female worker. "No, I'm grand," she says.
One canvasser, Pat O'Sullivan, has travelled from Cork. Like Sinn Fein, People Before Profit is an all-Ireland party and that matters in West Belfast.
"Sinn Fein don't know how to deal with me," Carroll says. "They cope better with a challenge from unionists, who they can cast as traditional enemies, or from other republicans, who they dismiss as dissidents. But when the challenge is from a socialist, they struggle."
The candidate has bridged the sectarian divide, canvassing the Shankill, where his posters refreshingly remain on display. His likely success will spell defeat for one of Sinn Fein's five MLAs - Pat Sheehan and Rosie McCorley look the most vulnerable - or the SDLP's Alex Attwood.
If the SDLP man is to survive, he will need Carroll's transfers. That Sinn Fein, in its worst scenario, will retain four seats shows its continuing dominance in nationalist areas. Yet the winds of change are blowing.
A few hundred yards from Camp Twaddell, the SDLP is canvassing Mountainview, which lies on the edge of the constituency. Alex Attwood insists that, despite a dwindling vote in recent years, he will hold his seat. He denies that the surge of support for Gerry Carroll is a rejection of the SDLP as an alternative to Sinn Fein.
"People are fed up with Stormont," he explains. "They're pointing the finger at all parties there, so People Before Profit benefits. But the SDLP is reviving under Colum Eastwood, Claire Hanna and Nichola Mallon. Along with the new blood, we need those with good experience like myself."
Bus driver Tony Murray thanks Attwood for having had a peace wall built to protect his house from nightly loyalist attack. "We didn't want the wall, but we needed it to save our home and our lives," he says.
At another door, Attwood rails that West Belfast has the longest housing waiting list across Northern Ireland. Three times more jobs go to the south and east of the city than to his constituency, he says.
When sisters Carys and Clara Sheppard hear Attwood is in their street, they rush over to show him trophies they've just won at the Irish Dancing World Championship in Killarney. Carys (9) took first prize, while Clara (11) came fourth.
Attwood is treated to an impromptu performance. "My seven-year-old daughter, Anna, loves Irish dancing, though she hasn't won trophies," he says. "In the privacy of my own home, with the curtains drawn, I do a bit of dancing with Anna myself - though I'm no Michael Flatley!"
Down the street, the candidate's brother, Tim, recounts a big 33-1 win on Rogue Angel in the Irish Grand National. Alex Attwood has no interest in the horses. "But I'm not averse to a flutter. I'd £3 each way on Zak Johnson to win last year's British Open and he did," says the delighted candidate.
So has Atwood laid a bet on his chances in West Belfast? "I'm far too busy to have time for that!" he laughs.
Across the peaceline, the DUP's Frank McCoubrey is hoping for a momentous victory. It's nine years since Diane Dodds' Assembly seat was lost and McCoubrey thinks he can take it back again.
"It's definitely winnable," he says. "The numbers are there, it's just a matter of overcoming apathy and getting our people out. Unionist candidates won 13% of the vote in the last election. If the UUP's Gareth Martin and myself take 14.4% this time, and there's a good transfer rate between us, we will get back a voice in Stormont."
Born and bred in Springmartin, where he still lives, McCoubrey thinks that he is the candidate to win back the seat.
"I owe a huge debt to the people of the Shankill," he adds. "They've elected me as a councillor for 21 years. I'm just asking them to do one last thing - to give me five minutes of their time next Thursday and go to the polling station and vote."
In the Lower Shankill, he is hugged by Kim Stevenson, who pledges her support. "I used to work with Frank in a painting and decorating firm years ago," she says, "and he was a right laugh."
At another house, Liz Haveron - who boasts a bar in her back garden - says she will vote DUP "so the needs of this area can be heard in Stormont".
Across the road, great-grandmother Sally Cummins, who is heading off to church, is equally supportive. "You don't need to ask for my vote, Frank" she says. "You listen to what we have to say - you just don't talk at us like some politicians do - and you're honest."
Sally wants a local play area for her seven great-grandchildren, and McCoubrey promises to lobby for that if he's elected.
The 49-year-old father-of-five says that tackling educational under-achievement in his community, and the needs of single-parent families, will be among his top priorities.
"I've been a single dad for many years now and I know first-hand how hard it is bringing up kids on your own and trying to juggle work too," he adds.
McCoubrey has perfected his cooking, cleaning and ironing skills - "Don't be putting that in the paper!", he laughs.
His youngest two children, nine-year-old Kyle and 12-year-old Frank, are excited by his election campaign.
"They're two very different wee lads," he says. "Kyle's crazy and self-assured but Frank's quiet, like me. People think a politician must be super-confident and outgoing, but that's not always so. And you have your own struggles too. Sometimes, politics can be the loneliest place in the world."