Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

General Election 2019: Suzanne Breen on the doorsteps with three women who have just one thing in mind... winning South Belfast

Suzanne Breen talks to party candidates and voters in one of Northern Ireland's most closely fought constituencies

DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly talks to constituent Aarika McFarland in Taughmonagh
DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly talks to constituent Aarika McFarland in Taughmonagh
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Thank you so much for the lovely flowers," Emma Little-Pengelly tells the pale-faced young woman who has rushed onto the street to greet her.

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There are parts of South Belfast where constituents most definitely would not be sending her bouquets. But this is loyalist Taughmonagh, where Union flags fly from some houses five months after the Twelfth and the DUP MP is massively popular.

Yet it's not her stance on the constitutional question or Brexit that has motivated the gift.

"Emma got me this place," explains the single mother, pointing proudly at the house behind her.

"I lived in a top-floor flat around the corner," she says.

"I have cancer and my wee boy has non-verbal autism. It was a struggle. I'd asked to be rehoused, but I was getting nowhere until Emma stepped in.

"I moved in here a fortnight ago. I can now spend Christmas in my new home. The bathroom was damp and smelly, but Emma got me a new one. The back wasn't safe for my son to play in and she got that fenced."

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Aarika McFarland is voting DUP for more predictable reasons. "It's traditional in our family. We stick by the ones we know," she says. She refuses the DUP woman's leaflet. "I don't need to read it. I know which box to tick next Thursday."

Her three-year-old daughter Tammy, sporting a reindeer hat, is a tad scared of the DUP canvassers and hides behind her mum.

"I'm always seeing you on TV over there in England," Albert Bloomer tells Little-Pengelly as he pledges his support.

DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly

Albert recalls polling days many decades ago when politicians toured the area asking for support from loud-hailers on the back of lorries.

"Peter Robinson has suggested I do the same, but I've ruled it out," laughs the candidate.

Ear-ringed pensioner Thompson Hindes is mad keen on the DUP. "How could I not be after this good-looking girl came on the scene?" he declares, gesturing at Little-Pengelly. Thompson's wife, standing right behind, doesn't mind a bit. "It gives me a break from him," she jokes.

Andy and Kim Ward, out walking their little dog Wicket, stop to chat to the candidate. Their big concern is the education budget. As low income parents, they're stretched when their children's school asks for donations to fund trips.

The couple tell Little-Pengelly they've no problem with an Irish Language Act but think it shouldn't be publicly funded.

The conversation continues until the pink-collared Wicket grows impatient and strains at the leash to move on.

Further up the street, the DUP MP is invited into Angela's home to warm herself on a bitterly cold afternoon. "Poor Emma, you must be foundered," she says. "Winter elections aren't great," confesses Little-Pengelly. "My calf muscles are sore from all the walking, even a Radox bath hasn't helped much." Angela sings the politician's praises for her efforts in moving her up the queue for major surgery.

"I've just passed the 12-week post-op period and Emma has been in touch constantly with messages.

The DUP is always there for you. With them, you feel you're not alone. Angela

Little-Pengelly admires the cream and grey décor in Angela's immaculate living-room, her pink rug and especially her Christmas tree adorned in matching colours. "Pale pink is very in this year," she remarks.

"My living room is grey and cream too, but I've a duck egg blue rug. And you put me to shame with your beautiful tree. I've mine up, but it's not decorated yet. It looks so miserable with no lights or tinsel."

A new addition to the DUP canvassing team is William Traynor, who ran for UKIP in May's council elections but has since joined the party. "It's tight between Emma and the SDLP's Claire Hanna, but I really hope that we can do it," he says.

Lisburn Road in south Belfast

Little-Pengelly has faced fierce criticism for becoming embroiled in arguments about UVF flags and for not building bridges in diverse South Belfast, which she denies.

"I have reached out, that's what I'm about, it's who I am," she says. "I held a constituency outreach in the Markets and an advice clinic in the Belfast Islamic Centre.

"I reached out on Twitter to the LGBT community and the GAA. I'm confused about claims that I haven't reached out. The DUP condemns paramilitary flags, but I try to sit down with people to address issues rather than just jumping up and down about them."

Over in the liberal and increasingly Catholic Rosetta area, residents certainly don't see their DUP MP as a bridge-builder. At many doors she's denounced in a way that you'd expect in republican Belfast, not in this middle-class and moderate district.

SDLP candidate Claire Hanna doesn't bring her rival up, but voters do. "I can't stand that woman Pengelly," a female householder says. "I want to wake up on December 13 to find the nightmare's over and we have a new MP."

A pensioner says: "She's not our MP, she never was our MP. In the two years since she was elected, I've not seen her once around these streets."

SDLP candidate Claire Hanna

Hanna's canvassers meet outside The Frying Squad chip shop. It's by no means purely an SDLP team. Two Green Party activists and two former Women's Coalition members are there.

The candidate needs to secure support from outside her party's usual voting base, and the evidence from the doors is that she's doing that.

"I normally vote Alliance, but you'll get my preference this time because I think you're the person to oust our current Westminster representative" a man tells her.

"If you lend me your vote, I'll look after it," Hanna pledges.

A Co Armagh teacher says: "I usually vote People Before Profit, but I'm with you in this election. I hope Enmma Little-Pengelly comes to my door so I can give her a piece of my mind."

Hanna is warm and chatty as doors are opened by busy parents putting kids to bed or mums already in their pyjamas.

SDLP candidate Claire Hanna speaks to Tim and Elsie Trainor on their doorstep in Ardenlee Avenue

"I'd be in mine if I wasn't out here doing this," the candidate says. Many know her from the school gates or parks. Others have seen her whizzing about the area on her bike.

One woman asks who will succeed her as South Belfast MLA if she's elected to Westminster. "There will be an internal party contest. We've a lot of bright young things who will be eager to take the Assembly seat off me in a heartbeat," she explains.

A pensioner advises her that she should fight this election not just by knocking doors, but on social media as well. "I don't know anything about it myself, but you must get on all those sites the young people are on Claire," she urges.

Michael Westland offers a cup of tea and more. "There are five votes in this house, Claire, you don't need to ask," he says.

You're one of the few intelligent politicians on TV. You're logical, rational and you don't tell lies. Michael

The compliments for Hanna come so thick and fast at the doors - "You echo what I think", "I trust you", "You keep my faith in politics" - that it's almost embarrassing for her.

She blushes and jokes to one voter that all the praise means "it's like being at your own funeral".

On a two-hour canvass, there are only three out-and-out noes for the SDLP woman. One family is solid DUP. A man looks at the SDLP leaflet through his glass door and shakes his head. Another man opens his but the conversation is brief. When asked by Hanna what the big issues are for him, he replies: "My dinner!" She admires the handsome Christmas wreaths bursting with pine cones and blood-red berries hanging from many doors. Election demands mean she's behind on the Christmas front herself, "although the kids do have an Advent calendar, and the decorations are out but not up".

Over in the religiously mixed middle-class Sicily Park in Finaghy, Alliance's Paula Bradshaw is setting a brisk pace. It's late afternoon and most householders aren't in, but she posts signed and timed leaflets through their doors.

Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw

Privately, she must be annoyed that almost every journalist and commentator is putting Hanna ahead in the Alliance-SDLP race for the Remain vote. Yet admirably she doesn't complain.

"I'm not taking it personally and I can understand why I'm not the favourite to win this seat. I think I would have been had the pact between the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Greens not happened," she says.

"But I would argue that Alliance can't be written off. We match the DUP in South Belfast in terms of councillors. We both have eight to the SDLP's four, and unofficial figures from May's council election put us on 25% in the constituency with the DUP on 23.5% and the SDLP on just 15.5%."

The Green Party may have stepped aside and endorsed Hanna, but Bradshaw claims that its voters aren't listening.

"I haven't met a Green supporter yet who is going SDLP, they're all voting Alliance," she says.

And she questions just how many Sinn Fein voters will come out for the SDLP. "I've found apathy about the election in the Lower Ormeau and the Market," she claims.

"There are also a fair few DUP voters telling us they're disillusioned with the party - that it's made a hames out of Brexit and they're fed up with the scandals. Some are coming over to us, others aren't. They'll just stay at home."

Voters at two homes in Sicily Park give off to the Belfast Telegraph about the DUP - one over Brexit and another over the health service. Three members in the latter household work for the NHS and aren't impressed - to put it mildly - with Richard Pengelly, the Department of Health permanent secretary and the DUP candidate's husband.

Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw talks to a constituent as she canvasses in Newtownbreda

"South Belfast is being very East Belfast in this election," says Bradshaw.

Normally, its residents are reticent in expressing their preferences, but they're shooting from the hip this time round. Paula Bradshaw

"Alliance are going great, although we don't really have strongholds. Somewhere like Stranmillis is excellent for us, but there's no place that we'll come in with 80% of the vote. Our strength is that we poll solidly across the constituency."

Bradshaw reports the issues raised on the doorsteps as "health, no Stormont, Brexit and abortion" (by pro-Lifers) in that order.

At one house, a woman praises Alliance's stance on equality issues. She's confused over Brexit. She supported Remain, her husband was a Leaver. She tells Bradshaw she'll consider voting for her.

But a few doors down, a woman is undecided about how she'll vote and says she'll wait to see what her husband does. "I've heard that at a few doors," the Alliance candidate says.

Although Bradshaw will poll well, this feels first and foremost like a Hanna-Little-Pengelly fight. The DUP could win if the Remain vote splits evenly, but there's a confidence about the SDLP candidate and her campaign that is unmissable. South Belfast currently seems set to return to the party and be represented at Westminster by a new female face.

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