Belfast Telegraph

Bel Tel shadows candidates for 'Scores on the doors' across Upper Bann and East Belfast

With only five days to go before the Assembly election, Belfast Telegraph writers Suzanne Breen and Malachi O'Doherty shadow candidates in two key constituencies

Upper Bann never was a constituency for the faint-hearted and, as relentless rain and wind sweep across its streets, it's clear not much has changed. But even Storm Doris can't compete with DUP candidate Carla Lockhart, who powers through Lurgan like a force of nature. "Cyclone Carla, there's no stopping you," a man in the town centre shouts as she shoots by.

Lockhart broke records to become Craigavon's youngest mayor. Although the DUP Assembly newcomer last year, she topped the poll with a spectacular 8,000 votes.

Her career has been built on her ferocious constituency work and infectious energy for the job. Now, she relies on both those qualities in a constituency where there is anger over 'Cash for Ash'.

In Market Street, she is greeted by an old friend, Charlie. "I love Carla and she's a grafter, but I'd struggle to vote for her party," he says.

"The RHI scandal has shown the arrogance at the top of the DUP. Arlene Foster is taking the country backwards. People want to move out of this Green and Orange tribalism."

Lockhart takes it in her stride. "You better vote for me, Charlie. You'll get a dig in the bake if you don't," she jokes.

In Sen Play, a multi-sensory play centre for children with special needs, young mother-of-four Leanne Gray can't praise Lockhart enough.

"Carla helped secure funding for this facility and it's changed my life. My wee boy, Christian, has microcephaly. We used to drive around in the car, with nowhere suitable to take him to play.

"This place is a glimpse of light on a dark road for my family. I don't follow the big political picture. All I know is that this woman helped me."

In the Mourneview estate, the candidate is invited into the Wilsons' home for a game of darts with eight-year-old Dylan. His mum, Julie, tells how Lockhart got fencing erected to stop anti-social behaviour on the site of the old Bairds factory.

"If I phone, or text, Carla about a problem, she always gets back to me," Julie says. "She works her backside off. She's trying to get a motocross track for Lurgan, which Dylan is really excited about."

Next door, Philip Hanna will reluctantly vote DUP.

"I'm not happy about RHI. That money could have gone to better things, but I'll stick with you, Carla," he says.

In the Avenue Road estate, 77-year-old Mary Magee ushers Lockhart into her living room for a cup of tea before a roaring fire. "You must be foundered out there, Carla," she says.

RHI isn't an issue for Mary. "I'm from Fermanagh and I know Arlene Foster's family. It's terrible the way so many people are attacking her. The girl was doing her best. She made a mistake. We're all human," she says.

Mary's living room walls overflow with photos of her six children, 15 grandchildren, and great-grandson. Lockhart rhymes off their names like they were her own family.

Mary explains her loyalty to Lockhart: "My husband, Billy, was on a long waiting list for a hip operation and she worked her magic to help him get surgery. That girl runs around here like a gazelle. I've never seen the like of it. I'm praying she gets re-elected."

Outside, Lockhart munches Jelly Tots - "my power food". She admits the challenges her party face on the ground.

"I've a very positive campaign based on my work ethic," she says. "When I go to people's doors, they recognise that I deliver for them. But I'm not pretending that all is rosy in the garden. There are people who are cross and angry. I'm just asking them to stick with me."

Up the road in Portadown's Huntingdale Lodge, Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie is fighting for his political life. There are three guaranteed unionist seats and he believes he'll be battling for the last with the DUP's second candidate, Jonathan Buckley.

"I was a soldier for 35 years and I've had my back against the wall many times," he says. "I don't run scared of a scrap."

At the home of Ted and Lorraine Hunniford, he secures two votes. "I've been told I could be waiting 15 months for an MRI scan," says Ted. "If I ring my GP, I'm lucky to get a call back, let alone an appointment.

"The money squandered on RHI could have been spent on the NHS. Had anyone else made the mistakes Arlene Foster has, they'd have been sacked on the spot."

The Hunnifords don't accept the DUP's warning that unionists must vote for that party to stop a united Ireland. "We know that the Union is safe with Doug," Lorraine says.

A few doors away, Tim Quinn, who is about to take his young son to karate lessons, is less sure. "I'm not happy about RHI, but the DUP's warning that, if we don't vote for them, Sinn Fein will be the biggest party, is playing on my mind," he says.

But teacher and mother-of-three Diane Toal is voting for Beattie. "I'm angry that money needed for schools and hospitals is being wasted on RHI," she says. "The DUP and Sinn Fein have never got on. I think the UUP and SDLP might be able to."

Beattie claims that fury over 'Cash for Ash' is widespread. "Over 60% of older people here live in fuel poverty. It would cost just £100 a month to heat a pensioner's home, yet we're burning £85,000 a day with RHI.

"The DUP have lost the common touch. They've put party before country and the pound before the people."

Beattie takes the afternoon off canvassing to mark what would be the second birthday of his grandson, Cameron, who died just hours before polling day in last year's election. The family visit his grave to release balloons, each with a message attached for him.

"Whatever the election result next week, it will pale into insignificance compared to losing Cameron," the UUP man says.

After a morning canvassing in Lurgan's Conor Park and Mansfield, the SDLP's Dolores Kelly and her team head to the Ashburn Hotel for hearty bowls of vegetable soup.

Kelly lost her Assembly seat by 168 votes to Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd (below) 10 months ago. Given a bigger share of the constituency this time round, he seems set to be re-elected. But the SDLP believes that the second SF candidate, newcomer Nuala Toman, is vulnerable.

Yet, the SF machine is impressive and that party's decision to leave the Executive has strongly resonated with its grassroots.

Kelly hopes that the SDLP's "vote for change" message will strike a chord. "Nationalists are highly engaged with this election," she says. The main issue has been more Arlene than RHI.

"We hear on every doorstep that she's a disgrace. People hoped she'd be a more generous DUP leader and they feel let down."

Kelly says on her two visits to Banbridge electoral office locals were queuing out the door to register for a vote. "Normally, we're having to arrange postal and proxy votes. This time, we find that people have already done it themselves."

SDLP veteran Brid Rodgers is working tirelessly for Kelly. "I spent my 82nd birthday last Monday out canvassing," she says. "Last May, I told everybody it would be my last election, because in 2021 I'd be on a Zimmer frame. I never thought I'd be back on the streets a few months later.

"The SDLP has the most articulate young team at Stormont, but we need Dolores' experience up there, as well."

Kelly admits that losing her seat was phenomenally hard. "It was like a bereavement," she says. "I started working in Wellworths in Lurgan when I was 15 and, since then, I'd always had a job. For the first time in over 40 years, I was without one.

"You go from doing 14-hour days and being on call 24/7 to a phone that doesn't ring and an empty inbox."

One vote Kelly can be sure of is barmaid's Patricia McCaughley. "Dolores and I grew up together in Aghagallon. We spent many's the night in the Rockpit Disco - although we were both more interested in earning a few pounds working for the farmers puling peas and beans than we were in pulling boys," she laughs.

"I'd love to see Dolores back in the Assembly. You won't find a more decent woman. She does what it says on the tin."

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

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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