Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: Naomi Long confident she can push Gavin Robinson all the way in red hot race for East Belfast

  • Outgoing MP: Gavin Robinson DUP
  • 2017 results: DUP hold
  • Majority: 8,474 votes
  • Candidates: Naomi Long (Alliance Party); Carl McClean (UUP); Gavin Robinson (DUP).
  • Electorate: 63,495
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Naomi Long could be forgiven for having mixed feelings as the December 12 election approaches.

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The abuse she has been subjected to, both online and on posters, is virtually unprecedented in modern-day Northern Ireland politics.

Vile, nakedly sectarian, personally abusive and deliberately misleading propaganda - the Alliance Party leader has had the full barrage since announcing her candidacy for East Belfast.

Even for someone as thick-skinned as Mrs Long, it is bound to have some effect.

On the other hand, if the Remain-supporting MEP wasn't a major threat to the status quo below those iconic yellow cranes then few of the trolls would even bother.

East Belfast has been held by a unionist Member of Parliament for nearly a century - with the exception of a five-year period from 2010 when Mrs Long unseated Peter Robinson, then First Minister and DUP leader, in one of the biggest shocks of Northern Ireland's electoral history.

Having succeeded David Ford as the party leader, and being a sitting member of the European Parliament, she has a much higher profile as a candidate now, and de facto a fighting chance of making lightning strike twice with another Robinson - the outgoing Gavin - the target this time.

There is clearly no love lost between these two.

When Mr Robinson won the seat back from Mrs Long in 2015 - the DUP man was re-elected with an increased majority two years later - his victory speech was regarded by many observers as unnecessarily ungracious, in marked contrast to his vanquished namesake in 2010, who congratulated, hugged and kissed the woman who had ended his 21-year reign as sitting member.

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Peter Robinson congratulates Mrs Long after her success in 2010

With just under 65,000 East Belfast constituents registered to vote, this is shaping up to be an epic battle.

Large swathes of what was traditionally a Protestant working class heartland have changed dramatically over the decades, not least the 'gentrification' of the likes of Ballyhackamore and Belmont, which have seen significant refurbishment and redevelopment in recent years, as is reflected in the property prices.

These places, rather than the tightly-packed Victorian terraces which housed shipyard workers in the long-gone halcyon days, will be the major source of Alliance votes, along with the often-maligned 'Cheery Valley'.

East Belfast, incidentally, boasts the most Methodists of any constituency in this election.

With Sinn Fein not running a candidate, this is ostensibly a Leave versus Remain battle although, judging by the online attacks on Mrs Long, the trolls would prefer it to be regarded as a more traditional Orange versus Green encounter.

The fact that the Alliance candidate does not fit the latter profile apparently doesn't matter.

If you believe this battle is really about Brexit then the Ulster Unionist candidate Carl McClean, whose party abhors Boris Johnson's current plans for withdrawal from the EU, should eat into the Alliance vote, rather than affect the pro-Leave DUP's chances of retaining the seat.

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Carl McClean

But is that the way it will turn out? The Ulster Unionists, who had the constituency virtually to themselves until Stanley McMaster was ousted by Bill Craig, then representing the short-lived Vanguard Party in 1974, garnered only 1,408 votes when Hazel Legge stood two years ago.

Mr Robinson's vote (23,917) rose by just over 6%, while Mrs Long's (15,443), went down by a similar amount.

It remains to be seen how the DUP's subsequent confidence and supply agreement with the Tories, and their love/hate relationship with the current Prime Minister, will play in the home of Parliament Buildings.

It is likely that a decent percentage of the constituency's population, which is close to 100,000 and has a higher than average number of older residents, will not regard Brexit as the main item on the agenda.

Recent travails with the shipyard - saved at the 11th hour but facing an uncertain long-term future - may get a mention on the doorsteps, and close to 40% of the constituents are claiming at least one of the main benefits. East Belfast is the constituency with the sixth highest unemployment claimant count.

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Gavin Robinson wins back the seat from Naomi Long in 2015

"The choice in East Belfast is the same in this election as it was in the last two," insisted Mr Robinson.

"I'm putting myself forward on what we have achieved collectively, and my positive record here. The electorate see the benefit of having a strong DUP team at Westminster."

Mrs Long sees things differently. "I absolutely believe this seat is winnable," she said.

"In real terms there is no 'green' in East Belfast. That's part of the reason the smear campaign has been launched against me. They need to create an enemy by linking me to Sinn Fein and the IRA, and turning this into an Orange versus Green campaign.

"It's fairly clear that the two big issues on the doorstep are Brexit and the anger people feel about there being no Assembly."

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