Belfast Telegraph

South Belfast candidates seek votes

Keeping theatre prices affordable and making more low cost housing available in the working class inner city are two items on the to-do list of the prospective South Belfast MP.

Home to many minorities from eastern Europe and student temporary residents from around the world, this marginal seat includes the gritty inner city streets of the Village and the leafy avenues off the prosperous Malone Road.

It takes in the cobble-stoned Cathedral Quarter, home to a gleaming new arts centre which advocates warn may have to charge £124 a ticket if public subsidy is removed due to austerity.

But it also contains street after street of terraced housing where the issues on the doors surround unemployment and social housing.

Former snooker world champion Alex "Hurricane" Higgins was brought up on the Sandy Row which grew up around the linen trade that underpinned much of Belfast's early industry.

In the nearby Village area the streets lie under the shadow of Windsor Park, home of the Northern Ireland football team and Belfast heroes like George Best.

In the Village, DUP candidate Jonathan Bell noted down a veritable shopping list of complaints - unemployment and lack of development including land which should have been transformed into low-cost social housing years ago.

Resident Terry Ross said: "It will be the biggest bonfire in the world, there were meant to be houses and apparently they have run out of money.

"Nobody seems to know what is happening, we are always the last to find out."

Mr Bell said he was a social worker for 21 years.

"I know the pain people are going through trying to make ends meet, there is nobody championing austerity."

Flags commemorating the Ulster soldiers who fought at the Somme in 1916 hung from first floor windows of terraced houses while a loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force mural on a gable end proclaimed "For God and Ulster".

Migrants attracted by cheap housing have suffered race hate attacks in the past.

One man, a stout former member of the security forces, alleged a brothel operated just a few doors from his home.

He told Mr Bell: "We are Ukip supporters unless you do something about the brothels."

Another man urged candidates to do something about unemployment in the area.

"What matters to me is my age ... getting back to work is the problem, nobody wants to know."

For six weeks at least, South Belfast is of intense interest to politicians as it is one of the most tightly contested seats in Northern Ireland and its representative could have disproportionate influence in a hung parliament.

The sectarian head count between Catholic and Protestant is almost equal, and all candidates are attempting to appeal to both sides of the community.

The incumbent is Dr Alasdair McDonnell, an affable former GP who has represented South Belfast for the last decade and worked for many more as a local doctor.

The SDLP leader is basing his pitch on creating economic development after years when the Troubles scarred prospects in the area.

"We can choose further austerity or choose a prosperity process."

He faces a strong challenge from Sinn Fein's charismatic Mairtin O Muilleoir, who is aiming to appeal to the liberal moderate face of South Belfast.

He said when he first entered local politics, as a Belfast City councillor in the 1980s, he had to wear a flak jacket and was barred from the Lord Mayor's chamber. Today he described a Belfast of investment and inclusivity.

"I have never seen the doors as accepting and willing to engage.

"People are up for change and they realise that the benefits are there and that we are all really seeking the same thing."

Huge change has been wrought by cuts to the block grant from London which provides Northern Ireland's public services.

Scores of community groups have been stripped of funding and the arts sector has claimed politicians are not listening to their concerns.

Anne McReynolds, the chief executive of the MAC, a theatre which sits just inside the city centre part of South Belfast's boundaries, said the cost of tickets could rise to £124 if public subsidy was removed.

One audience member at an arts question time featuring South Belfast Ulster Unionist candidate Rodney McCune among others said older people would no longer be able to afford the theatre.

Ali Fitzgibbon, who runs Belfast Children's Festival, said art would always need subsidy.

"If you want it to happen it is a small amount of money but you are asking for a sustainable (business) model that does not exist.

"There is no core sustainable funding at a realistic level and it is a Sinn Fein minister who is responsible for that."

Mr McCune's party opposes much of what the ministers at the head of the powersharing Executive at Stormont do.

He said: "There is always a pot of money in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and it is being held back to roll out populist things in the run up to the next (Stormont) Assembly election."

In the Village a man wiped dried paint off his hands and put down his scraper before he shook hands with Mr Bell on his doorstep. He wanted a job, one of the 31% of the constituency on benefits.

The need to boost the economy united the candidates in this tightest of races.

Peter Shirlow, an academic from Queen's University in South Belfast, said the problem for unionism in South Belfast was that it was running three candidates, UUP, DUP and Ukip.

He said: "Mairtin O Muilleoir was a good mayor, he's been very open, tolerant and he's business savvy - he's pro-business.

"He will take votes off Alasdair McDonnell, there is no doubt about that, but it depends how many he takes."


From Belfast Telegraph