Belfast Telegraph

SDLP's McDonnell slams Little Pengelly as he eyes up South Belfast MP return

Former SDLP leader labels DUP politician 'disastrous' and wants run in new election

Alasdair McDonnell
Alasdair McDonnell
Emma Little Pengelly

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

Former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell is considering a political comeback to challenge DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly, whom he has branded "disastrous" as South Belfast MP.

Dr McDonnell told the Belfast Telegraph he had put his name forward to possibly run again in the constituency if Prime Minister Boris Johnson calls a snap election.

He lost the seat to Ms Little Pengelly by 2,000 votes in the 2017 Westminster election, but the SDLP believes that it can win it back.

The DUP MP has been involved in disputes over UVF flags at Cantrell Close and bonfires since her election.

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna is believed to be also hoping to contest the seat and party sources said she would be the favourite to secure the nomination over Dr McDonnell.

Ms Hanna resigned the SDLP whip in February following the party's link up with Fianna Fail. She also stepped down as its Brexit spokesperson but has continued to be a party member. She canvassed for its candidates in May's council poll and for SDLP leader Colum Eastwood in the EU election.

The SDLP's Westminster selection process will begin only after an election is called, but the party had asked for a declaration of interest by prospective candidates.

Ms Hanna and her former party leader both put their names forward last week. Dr McDonnell told the Belfast Telegraph: "Emma Little Pengelly has been disastrous for south Belfast.

"There are many people in the constituency - including some from a unionist background - who are deeply disappointed in how she has performed since she was elected.

"Individuals both inside and outside the party have suggested to me that I should consider standing in the next election so I have expressed my interest to the party. We are in the early stages of a very open and very loose process."

The former SDLP leader had held the South Belfast seat for 12 years but Ms Little Pengelly increased the DUP vote significantly to triumph for her party in 2017. Dr McDonnell accused her of letting down her constituents.

"Her party is pursuing an aggressive no-deal Brexit agenda," he said.

"The people of south Belfast are very aware of the danger that poses to the economy, agriculture and the Good Friday Agreement, and they're angry about it.

"They are also deeply concerned about the future of the Erasmus scheme which allows students to study in other countries."

Dr McDonnell won the seat in 2005 from the Ulster Unionists. He retained it in the 2010 general election with Sinn Fein not fielding a candidate. In the 2015 election, Sinn Fein ran Mairtin O Muilleoir but the SDLP MP managed to hold the seat on just a 25% vote share with 1,000 votes separating him from the DUP's Jonathan Bell.

However, the DUP was victorious two years later, securing a 30% vote to the SDLP's 26%.

With Alliance on 18%, Sinn Fein on 16%, and the Greens on 5% in the 2017 Westminster poll, the SDLP will need votes from those parties supporters. Alliance will likely strongly challenge the SDLP claim to be the only viable alternative to Ms Little Pengelly.

In 2017, Green leader Steven Agnew said the SDLP's choice of Dr McDonnell as South Belfast candidate "effectively put to an end to any chance of an agreed candidate in that constituency".

Citing the SDLP MP's anti-abortion stance, he said: "The Green Party could not ask voters to support Alasdair McDonnell. Mr McDonnell doesn't trust women, as evidenced by his position at the forefront of the SDLP anti-choice policy."

DUP sources acknowledge that South Belfast will be one of the key battlegrounds in the next Westminster election but believe that Ms Little Pengelly can retain her seat.

The SDLP is expected to stress its pro-Remain stance in a constituency which recorded a 70% vote against Brexit.

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