Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: Greens could help SDLP slide over line in South Belfast

  • Outgoing MP: Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP)
  • 2017 result: DUP gain
  • Majority: 1,996
  • Candidates: Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP), Claire Hanna (SDLP), Paula Bradshaw (Alliance), Michael Henderson (Ulster Unionist), Chris McHugh (Aontu)
  • Electorate: 66,105
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The battle for South Belfast was originally billed as one of the most fascinating and closest contests in next month's election.

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Fascinating it still is, but close it is not - if the bookies are right. Paddy Power has the SDLP's Claire Hanna at 1/6, Alliance's Paula Bradshaw as a distant second favourite at 11/2, and outgoing DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly at 13/2.

The odds flatter Hanna and under-estimate Little-Pengelly, I suspect.

The SDLP woman's chances of winning the seat massively improved when first Green Party leader Clare Bailey and then Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir pulled out of the race.

Bailey's withdrawal was always on the cards. Her admiration for Hanna is long-standing. O Muilleoir's was less predictable, although Sinn Fein did step aside for the SDLP's Dr Alasdair McDonnell in 2010.

The decision by the Shinners and the Greens gave Hanna a dream start against Bradshaw. She positioned herself not merely as a solitary candidate, but one leading a Remain coalition.

The SDLP lost South Belfast by just under 2,000 votes in 2017, so those 2,000 Green and 7,000 Sinn Fein voters from that election should take Hanna over the line.

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Yet she knows she can't take the Sinn Fein vote in particular for granted. The SDLP were out in force on the ground in the Lower Ormeau and the Markets this week.

SDLP’s Claire Hanna

As her party's most high-profile MLA on broadcast media, and with personal and family links to the constituency dating back decades, Hanna has a strong hand generally.

She is also fortunate in her main unionist opponent. In neighbouring East Belfast, DUP MP Gavin Robinson has kept a relatively low-profile. He hasn't antagonised those who didn't vote for him.

The same cannot be said of Little-Pengelly in South Belfast. When she was elected, she had the opportunity to build bridges with nationalists and 'others' in this most diverse constituency - as an act of self-preservation if nothing else.

DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly

Instead, she became involved in rows over bonfires and UVF flags. It was unwise to antagonise those who otherwise might have developed a civil relationship with a reconciliatory and progressive DUP MP.

Yet Little-Pengelly certainly can't be written off in next month's poll. She has a fine electoral track record in this constituency. She increased her party's vote by an impressive 50% between 2015 and 2017, something for which she is given insufficient credit.

She is a prodigious constituency worker. Despite Ulster Unionist Michael Henderson standing, she should secure a massive unionist vote.

DUP Balmoral councillor David Graham is running her campaign, and doesn't think it is a lost cause.

"Emma got over 13,000 votes last time, and there is room for growth in our core area," he says.

"If you compare our 10 best (election) boxes in the constituency with the top 10 nationalist boxes in 2017 - when we did exceptionally well - there was still a far higher proportion of people in our best areas who didn't vote or weren't even registered.

"We've done a lot of work on the ground to change that, and unionist voters are very motivated for this election. Emma grew unionist turnout in 2017, and we need to do that again. I think we will as people realise it has never been more important to defend the Union."

Graham also cites the outgoing MP's grassroots endeavours: "Emma has dealt with over 6,000 cases in her office in her two years as an MP. Christopher Stalford is a hard-working MLA and we have an excellent council team locally. That helps us hugely."

Alliance Party’s Paula Bradshaw

The key to the DUP's chances is how Alliance fares. If the Remain camp is fairly evenly split and Hanna doesn't pull significantly ahead of Bradshaw, then Little-Pengelly should win.

Support for Bradshaw next month is difficult to predict. The SDLP was 3,500 votes ahead of Alliance in 2017. Yet the 'Naomi factor' and the party's extraordinary success in the EU election may have changed the dynamic.

Alliance surged ahead of the SDLP in May's council poll. But the fact Bradshaw stood as an Ulster Unionist/Conservative candidate in 2010 might limit her reach more than it would an Alliance candidate without such a history.

Ray Kennedy was the SDLP's election guru in South Belfast for two decades. He ran Alasdair McDonnell's campaigns. He says: "This seat is now Claire Hanna's to lose. But I think it will be tight at the top with the SDLP just edging it over the DUP, and Alliance coming a good third.

"Alasdair won around 1,000 soft unionist votes in 2017. I reckon they're in doubt, with these voters perhaps switching to Alliance or staying at home.

"The SDLP's perceived pact with Sinn Fein doesn't help as it's being sold by others as a sectarian pact."

However, Kennedy sees Hanna winning support elsewhere. "Claire won't get 100% of the Green vote, but she will get a fair chunk. But I think she will secure no more than half Sinn Fein votes, and perhaps only a third," he says.

"The benchmark will be whether she manages to get as high a turnout as Alasdair in 2010 (when Sinn Fein also stood aside) and the SDLP won over 14,000 votes."

While forecasting defeat for Alliance this time, Kennedy predicts future growth.

"Alliance did very well in the council election, but the archaic and undemocratic first-past-the-post system for Westminster doesn't suit the party," he says.

"I see it occupying the same space in South Belfast as we did 20 years ago. Alasdair ran for Westminster and wasn't close, but he made up ground in every election and we used that momentum to grow our vote. Alliance will do similarly. It has bright prospects ahead."

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