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East Belfast ... where there is a sense of a shift in thinking, but perhaps not enough for a shift in party loyalties

One of the surprising things about the East Belfast constituency is how many of the really big names in the history of Northern Irish politics were elected there. There was William Craig, the former minister of Home Affairs (what we now call Justice), who confronted the Civil Rights Association by banning their marches and, when order collapsed, founded the Ulster Vanguard movement.

Another was David Bleakley, of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and later Alliance. He was once co-opted as Minister of Community Relations by Brian Faulkner, though he had no seat in Stormont at the time.

Another historic figure who represented East Belfast was, of course, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, formerly of the UVF. And there was Peter Robinson of the DUP.

And Eileen Paisley. Her husband, though they lived in the constituency, fought his electoral battles elsewhere.

And some who lived and were elected there have moved on, like Sammy Wilson. So, it is a constituency that, more than most, has been represented by big, loud personalities and people who have made their ways into the history books.

It is currently the seat of the most vivid personality in politics here, Naomi Long.

It would be hard to put together a theory for why more eloquent and tempestuous orators come out of East Belfast than, say, Foyle, or Fermanagh South Tyrone, but they do. And always have done.

Maybe it's something to do with people having had to shout as children to be heard above the clanging of the shipyard, the traffic past the ends of narrow streets.

Perhaps it takes something from the tradition of personal testimony in evangelical religion.

The constituency is broad and diverse. It covers the working-class area around the shipyard at the lower end of the Newtownards Road, the Little Hampstead of Ballyhackamore, with its trendy bars and lush restaurants. There is Campbell College and the Turas Irish language project.

The area has been depicted in the republican lore as a huge Protestant ghetto that might, any day, unleash hordes of rampaging loyalists over plucky little Catholic Short Strand, but you have only to pass through once to see that it is nothing of the kind.

Much of it was virtually untouched by the Troubles, because people with mortgages don't throw stones.

The big political challenge here is between the DUP and the Alliance Party.

Nationalism and republicanism have little prospect of registering a presence.

I met David Douglas, who was out canvassing for the DUP on a stormy Thursday afternoon. David is fighting for the seat vacated by his father, Sammy Douglas.

Sammy had been invited to stand by Peter Robinson. He stood on his record of community work and David developed his political skills supporting him.

David claims he has knocked on 12,000 doors. His party members had been out that morning repairing posters that had been damaged by Storm Doris.

He says he has heard few complaints about the RHI scheme, or criticism of his party leader, Arlene Foster.

"There is frustration with some and I realise that. People just want to see it work. And they want it to work, so that services will improve." He says: "It's the bread-and-butter issues that people are interested in."

And his point seems affirmed when we talk to one of those he calls on, Johnny Harvey, off the Newtownards Road.

Johnny's house is the only one in the street with flags up, but he says that he will be voting DUP primarily out of respect for David Douglas and the work he does.

"For me, it is not necessarily about the party, but for the person that I think is going to make a difference for my community and my area," he says.

But he says he is fully aware of anger at the DUP.

"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, so, hopefully, the inquiry will do that.

"It's just a pity that it is not before the election."

And he thinks that Arlene Foster should have stood aside; that, if she had done, we would not be having an election now.

"In all honesty, if Arlene had followed Peter Robinson's lead, she should have stepped aside while the investigation was happening. However, she didn't get a chance to do that. Sinn Fein didn't let it happen. Sinn Fein are playing this for their own advantage. But that's politics."

Further down the list, he says, he will vote for unionists. He will not be giving a vote to the Alliance Party.

Out on the main Newtownards Road, I meet a woman who is furious, but doesn't want to be named, or photographed.

"My friend's cancer treatment is on hold because of them. I think the country is in a mess because they just can't get their act together and it's disgusting. And they are blaming each other, when they are all culpable for the mess."

And she says this is an opinion she hears widely expressed.

Andy Allen is out canvassing for the Ulster Unionist Party.

He says: "People are frustrated that we have no Assembly. They are angry that this election has the potential to cost £5m, which could be invested in key frontline services. And there is the major disruption that this election has caused, the lack of a budget and the uncertainty for groups about their ongoing funding."

He claims that there is a change of mood in East Belfast. Last year, more people accepted the argument that a vote for the Ulster Unionists risked the possibility of Sinn Fein taking the First Minister's role.

"People would say, 'Andy, I would love to vote for you, but we need to keep themmuns out. I would say I have only heard that a handful of times in this election."

Born and raised in East Belfast, Allen joined the armed forces and was horrifically injured in Afghanistan 2008. He lost both legs and damaged his vision, but found his way into politics through supporting services personnel.

He claims he has knocked more than 10,000 doors.

If his party did overtake the DUP, wouldn't it be likely to end up sharing power with Sinn Fein?

He says: "Don't rule anything out."

Naomi Long was nursing a cold and saving herself for an appearance on BBC Northern Ireland's The View.

But Chris Lyttle was out doing the doors, he says, and he impressed Curtis McAleese as a hard worker.

Curtis says he will vote only for the Alliance Party and will give Lyttle his number one, "because he seems to do a lot more for us".

Ryan Hamilton (right) says he will go down the list and give a vote to every party - except the DUP.

"Because of RHI, Red Sky, Nama ... the lot. They don't fit my politics, anyway, so even without that, I would be unlikely to vote for them."

And Nathan Surgenor says he will probably vote Alliance.

"I would definitely give preferences to the UUP and SDLP. I would definitely vote for them before I would vote for the DUP, or Sinn Fein, because of the debacle," he says.

His Hungarian wife, Esther, will not be voting, though she is anxious about Brexit.

Nathan says, "We have three different passports. Mine's British, Esther's is Hungarian and the baby's is Irish."

A lot of people on the Newtownards Road, when asked how they would vote, said they would have to think about it. And yet, after giving it some thought, said they would vote as they did before.

So, there is a sense in East Belfast that something has shifted in politics here; it maybe just hasn't shifted enough to change their party loyalties.

Belfast Telegraph


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