Constituency profile: West Belfast
Gerry Adams has topped the poll in every election since 1983 except for a blip between 1992 and 1997 when he lost the Westminster seat to the SDLP’s Joe Hendron.
Sinn Fein secured five of the six seats in the 2007 Assembly election after some careful, tactical vote management. The SDLP’s Alex Attwood was also elected.
Boundary changes have seen West Belfast gain the Dunmurry ward and the northern part of Derriaghy from Lagan Valley making the constituency 0.1% more Catholic, and 0.2% less Protestant, than the old. So, despite including the home of Ulster loyalism — the Shankill Road —the changes mean the election of a single unionist seat in the constituency, as Diane Dodds won for the DUP in 2003, highly unlikely.
What’s the story?
This is the first time since 1997 that Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams won’t be on the ballot sheet. Mr Adams resigned his position as West Belfast MLA and MP in January for an ultimately successful bid to represent the Louth constituency in the Dail. Former republican prisoner Pat Sheehan, who spent 55 days on hunger strike during the 1980s, now faces his first electoral battle.
Winners and Losers?
Even without Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein will continue to flex its political muscle. Five of the 14 candidates are Sinn Fein and few would put money against all of them being returned.
Indeed some have argued that with Adams missing from the ballot sheet, the party’s attempts to spread the number of first preference votes across all its candidates could be made easier
because their voters will no longer be tempted to tick ‘big name’ at the top of the ticket.
Long standing representatives like Fra McCann and Paul Maskey are likely to increase their share of the vote.
The SDLP’s Alex Attwood is also expected to poll well after a strong performance in the 2010 Westminster election gaining over 5,000 votes.
Realistically, unionists won’t be expecting much.
What are the issues?
West Belfast is one of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland with some of the highest rates of unemployment and benefit reliance in the UK.
So, while the national question will always rear its head, it is bread and butter issues such as housing waiting lists, jobs cuts, university tuition fees and investment that have people talking.
Despite Gerry Adams’ departure, the political landscape is unlikely to change significantly. Sinn Fein is a slick political machine and has the area pretty much sewn up. It is likely to retain its grip in the area after May 5.
OUTGOING ASSEMBLY MEMBERS (Asterisk denotes they are running again)
* Pat Sheehan
* Alex Attwood
* Paul Maskey
* Fra McCann
* Jennifer McCann
* Sue Ramsey
2010 share of vote compared to 2007
Sinn Fein 71.1% (68.6%)
DUP 7.6% (10.8%)
UUP 3.1% (1.8%)
SDLP 16.4% (13.8%)
Alliance 1.9% (0.3%)
Other 0 (4.6%)