Belfast Telegraph

Constituency profile: Nigel Dodds v John Finucane contest will prove litmus test for bitterest foes in North Belfast

  • Outgoing MP: Nigel Dodds (DUP)
  • 2017 result: DUP hold
  • Majority: 2,081 votes
  • Candidates: Nigel Dodds (DUP), John Finucane (Sinn Fein), Nuala McAllister (Alliance)
  • Electorate: 68,249
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

In the first of our daily Westminster constituency profiles, we examine the battle for a DUP hotseat in North Belfast.

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We are spoilt for choice in next month's Westminster poll.

South Belfast, Foyle, and Fermanagh-South Tyrone are just some of the constituencies offering mouth-watering battles in this feast of an election.

But there is none bigger, better or more bitter than North Belfast. DUP veteran and deputy leader Nigel Dodds versus Sinn Fein rising star John Finucane.

The DUP's three Belfast seats are at risk. While the party understandably wants to hold on to them all, North Belfast is by far the one it can least afford to lose.

A win for Sinn Fein here would represent much more than the defeat of an individual DUP MP. Such is Dodds' importance to his party that, in the words of commentator Brian Feeney, unseating him would effectively "decapitate" the DUP.

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A Nigel Dodds election poster in north Belfast

Arlene Foster wouldn't have weathered RHI and other storms in recent years without her loyal deputy by her side. His very presence calms the nerves of the party's grassroots.

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He is also perhaps the only DUP politician who commands universal respect across unionism. Sinn Fein of course knows all this, which is why winning North Belfast would be the sweetest victory.

Dodds versus Finucane is not a new contest. The pair clashed in the 2017 Westminster election, when the DUP man came out 2,000 votes ahead.

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Nigel Dodds

Dodds upped his vote by 1% on his 2015 performance. Finucane improved 8% on the effort of his predecessor Gerry Kelly.

Sinn Fein threw everything at the election two years ago, and unionists hope that Finucane maximised his vote then and there is little room for improvement.

But last time Sinn Fein entered the race 5,000 votes behind and many nationalists just didn't believe the seat was winnable.

Closing that gap significantly in 2017 may convince those who are not natural Sinn Fein voters to put an 'X' beside Finucane's name next month.

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John Finucane (pictured) is challenging Nigel Dodds for the North Belfast seat

The decision of the SDLP, Greens, and Workers' Party to pull out of the constituency is potentially game-changing. Those parties secured over 3,000 votes between them last time.

Although it is by no means guaranteed that these will all transfer over to Finucane.

Just over 2,000 SDLP voters came out for an almost unknown candidate in party press officer Martin McAuley last time round, so they are hardcore SDLP who instinctively dislike Sinn Fein.

They could either stay at home or vote for Alliance's Nuala McAllister, who is a very strong candidate.

A former Belfast Lord Mayor - and bright and articulate with it - she topped the poll in the Castle ward in May's council election.

Yet Brexit polarisation gives the election a different feel. Some SDLP diehards, with hostility to Sinn Fein in their DNA, are prepared to reluctantly back the party this once.

Former MLA Alban Maginness was someone expected to raise his voice against his party standing aside. He didn't do so.

While Maginness hasn't gone as far as formally endorsing Finucane, he has nodded favourably in his direction in media interviews.

It would have been very hard for the SDLP to do that for any other Sinn Fein candidate. Finucane's professional and personal background - the solicitor son of a murdered lawyer - and his personable nature make him much more palatable than others in his party.

Sinn Fein insiders are enthusiastic about his chances.

"John has given us a massive lift in North Belfast," said one member of the party's campaign team. "There's a very positive vibe on the doorsteps so far.

"The SDLP and Greens created momentum for us when they pulled out.

"Yes, we didn't win last time, but Brexit and the now realistic chance of toppling Nigel Dodds make this election different.

"There is also a bit of stardust around John Finucane. He is the perfect candidate to reach out for us to SDLP, Green and even Alliance voters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that's happening."

The election could hinge on demographic changes in the constituency since 2017. Sinn Fein sources report a "small demographic shift" in nationalism's favour, with the electorate in Ligoneil in particular growing.

Yet the party cannot take anything for granted. It hasn't been on the up this year electorally, with so-so results in the EU and council polls. There are at least a few hundred dissident republicans in Ardoyne who will not be rallying behind Finucane.

Team Dodds is by no means countenancing defeat.

Antrim and Newtownabbey councillor Philip Brett is running the DUP campaign in North Belfast. He said it is not just Sinn Fein registering new voters and that his party's machine, which was strong in the constituency already, has really moved up a gear.

The candidate is putting in nine-hour shifts on the campaign trail, and droves of DUP canvassers from other constituencies will be drafted in to help.

"We need as many unionists to turn out to vote on December 12 and we really believe they will," says Brett.

"There is a clear recognition in the community that this is not about Remain versus Leave. It's about getting the DUP out, getting unionism out, of North Belfast."

He insists that all the stats remain in the DUP's favour, adding: "Nigel was ahead two years ago.

"The DUP was the biggest party in the 2017 Assembly election. We were also 2,000 votes ahead of Sinn Fein in May's council election when other unionist parties also ran."

Brett remains unconvinced that SDLP voters will back Finucane.

"We've met many SDLP people disillusioned that their party has pulled out of this constituency. They won't be voting Sinn Fein," he says.

Tensions are rising by the day in North Belfast. There is no shortage of aggressive campaigning in this political bear pit. Expect more maulings over the coming month as the DUP and Sinn Fein square up to each other in this unmissable contest.

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