Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

Constituency profile: Paul Maskey almost a certainty to romp home in SF's safest seat in west Belfast

  • Outgoing MP: Paul Maskey (Sinn Fein)
  • 2017 result: SF hold
  • Majority: 21,652
  • Candidates: Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit), Monica Digney (Aontu), Paul Doherty (SDLP), Donnamarrie Higgins (Alliance), Paul Maskey (SF), Frank McCoubrey (DUP)
  • Electorate: 62,482

By Noel McAdam

West Belfast is the only Northern Ireland constituency in which the outgoing MP's majority is higher than the number of non-voters.

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Analysis by the Electoral Commission shows that in the last general election, Sinn Fein's Paul Maskey was 59 votes ahead of those who did not turn out at all, which makes it his party's safest seat.

Attention then turns to who can come closest, with Frank McCoubrey again taking up the cudgels for the DUP. People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll is also aiming to repeat his achievements in recent elections.

This constituency has seen significant development in recent years, including the new Andersonstown Leisure Centre, but it is still pockmarked by high levels of unemployment and deprivation.

However, West Belfast has also largely reinvented itself as a tourism destination, turning the Troubles into an attraction.

Ads for the area urge tourists to "visit Clonard Monastery with its sumptuous Rose window" and "walk up Divis or Black Mountain and be spoilt for choice for somewhere to eat afterwards".

The internationally popular Lonely Planet guide says: "Though scarred by three decades of civil unrest, the former battleground of west Belfast is one of the most compelling places to visit in Northern Ireland.

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"The Falls Road and Shankill Road are adorned with famous murals expressing local political and religious passions, and are divided by the infamous Peace Line, separating Catholic and Protestant communities."

The glossy language and hyperbole mask an area still scarred with social problems, including the highest poverty levels in Northern Ireland.

A tongue-in-cheek letter to the Irish News last month poked fun at the achievements and verbal ability of the abstentionist Mr Maskey, who has held the seat since Gerry Adams decided to run in the Republic.

Paul Maskey

The mischievous letter drew a reply a few days later, questioning the original letter's veracity, but there is little doubt Maskey will romp home. He enjoys the largest majority of any Northern Ireland MP.

What he may lack in vocal dexterity he more than makes up for on social media, tweeting last week that Santa had taken a few hours off to support striking health service workers "who had all been good boys and girls this year".

Mr McCoubrey, the veteran DUP candidate, also has a Twitter account, which tends to retweet Nigel Dodds a lot, but he came second place to Mr Maskey last time round.

Mr McCoubrey also pushed Mr Carroll into third after the People Before Profit man slashed Mr Maskey's majority two years earlier and amassed 19% of the vote.

Frank McCoubrey

Mr Maskey said his recovery was "no fluke" but was down to hard work and delivery.

Major talking points within the constituency include proposals for 700 new homes at the Glenmona site near Upper Springfield and the failure after more than 1,000 days to get planning approval for the new Casement Park plans.

Mr Maskey has been vocal on both issues. "I have families who have been on waiting lists for up to nine years. The shortage of social housing is one of the biggest issues," he said.

"I have pointed out to planners that applications lodged after Casement have been approved. It will be the jewel in the crown of West Belfast."

Big-ticket issues such as Brexit are also to the fore. West Belfast had the second highest vote for Remain in the 2016 referendum (74%).

Ongoing violence is also an issue, however.

Two weeks ago, a family had a lucky escape after an air freshener exploded on top of a wood burning stove, a few days after a pipe bomb was defused in a front garden.

Mr McCoubrey has claimed the unionist vote in the area has almost doubled in recent years, leaving the DUP "knocking on the door" in West Belfast.

Gerry Carroll

Mr Carroll has also insisted that his aim is to win the seat, though his campaign will also be seen as a dry run for the next Assembly election.

Alliance candidate Donnamarie Higgins said the constituency needed a strong pro-Remain voice and argued change is possible "when people vote for it" as they have in a pro-Alliance surge which saw the party take the third MEP seat this year.

New party Aontu will be interesting to watch, particularly in terms how many votes it can take from Sinn Fein.

Candidate Monica Digney said: "Irish MPs north and south 100 years ago did not stand idly by like Sinn Fein do today. They refused to go to Westminster but went to Dublin, which is what we will do, demanding the right to represent people here."

SDLP stalwart Alex Attwood has, after many years of struggle, left the battleground and, apparently, politics altogether.

His long-serving councillor brother, Tim Attwood, polled just under 3,000 votes in the constituency, a fall of 3%, and came in fourth.

The constituency has expanded in the recent past, taking in Dunmurry and the northern part of the Derriaghy council ward in 2010, but the change did not affect the proportion of Catholics to Protestants. In the last census, almost 60% identified as Irish.

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