Belfast Telegraph

General Election: Finucane v Dodds box office gold as rivals will leave nothing to chance

Suzanne Breen hits the election campaign trail with Sinn Fein's John Finucane and DUP's Nigel Dodds on streets of North Belfast

Nigel Dodds is battling to stop John Finucane taking his seat.
Nigel Dodds is battling to stop John Finucane taking his seat.
DUP candidate for North Belfast Nigel Dodds talking to resident Joan McKay
Sinn Fein’s John Finucane speaks to residents Veronica Fryers and Corey Little
Mr Dodds with a festively dressed election worker
Mr Finucane talks to Suzanne Breen
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Jamie Bryson will be claiming that it's one of his more colourful conspiracy theories come true.

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The loyalist campaigner is forever raging about what he alleges is a coalition of "latte-drinking liberals and their republican allies".

So imagine what he would make of the man Sinn Fein believe will be the next North Belfast MP in the upmarket Linen & Latte cafe in Glengormley.

Except the Sinn Fein candidate is not sipping a latte, cappuccino, or mocha for that matter. He's not even a coffee drinker. It's a herbal tea that sits before him as he meets local anti-incinerator campaigners.

There's a mouth-watering array of delicacies to choose from.

Finucane isn't tempted by the glorious gluten-free raspberry and coconut slices or the salted caramel chocolate fudge brownies. He opts for a peanut butter ball which he declares first-class.

For Sinn Fein to take North Belfast from the DUP next month, it has to reach beyond its traditional base and win over customers who frequent places like Linen & Latte.

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If the opinion of some on the street outside is representative, then the party has a chance.

"I wouldn't normally support Sinn Fein but John Finucane seems a nice fellow and I'll give him a vote this time," a female teacher says.

Finucane versus Dodds is political box office gold. The young nationalist challenger versus the seasoned unionist pro. If it's tense, if it's bitter in some quarters on the ground, it's because so much is at stake.

Dodds commands respect right across unionism, even among those with little time for his party. Had he wanted, he could have succeeded both the Rev Ian Paisley as DUP leader in 2008, and Peter Robinson in 2015.

But he never craved the top job, always being content as the rock-solid, loyal deputy. That's what makes him arguably the most important figure in his party. Removing him from Westminster would wound it significantly.

Candidates don't come better for Sinn Fein than Finucane.

The solicitor son of a murdered solicitor. A professional, but with the common touch. He ticks every box in the direction that the party wants to travel.

A blip came on Tuesday when it was revealed by this newspaper that a month after Finucane became Belfast Lord Mayor, he was cautioned by police for urinating in the street after a night out.

"It wasn't something that was pre-planned," he says.

"It was something that was a reaction to the emergency of the situation. It's not something that I would be going out of my way to ever do again. It's caused me personal embarrassment. It's obviously caused me professional and political embarrassment. I've apologised unreservedly for it."

Does he think it will cost him votes? "I don't know. I suppose ask me again after the election," he says. "It's made me the butt of some jokes, but there's not been an adverse effect at the doors."

That view is supported by the Belfast Telegraph's time on the campaign trail with him. The incident is referred to once by a man in Glengormley. "Is there anywhere you know for a p***?" he enquires of the Sinn Fein politician.

"I'm the wrong man to ask, mate," Finucane says and moves on. "You're taking the p*** now," the man replies.

Down the Antrim Road, in solid Sinn Fein territory, the reception the candidate receives is phenomenal.

Entire families pour out of their houses to greet him. He's in his element. He chats to toddlers and their mums about Peppa Pig and Igglepiggle.

There are lengthy conversations with children about what they hope Santa will bring.

It's all GAA chat with 14-year-old St Malachy's College pupil and hurler Corey Lyttle. Finucane, who captains Lamh Dhearg football team, laments that he wasn't good enough for hurling which he found too rough.

Corey's granny Veronica Fryars proudly tells the Sinn Fein candidate about her "brain box" grandson who is hitting all A*s and As at school. She promises him every vote in the family. Another warm welcome is received at Pauline McKinley's home where a St Brigid's cross hangs above the Christmas decorations. Householders tell Finucane they're delighted that the SDLP is standing aside this time to increase his chances.

There are pledges that people who haven't voted in years will come out next month to make history and unseat the DUP.

Finucane banters about canvassing the beauty parlours proliferating the Antrim Road. He was offered various services but jokes that "waxing or tanning" aren't on the cards as "there's a limit as to what I will do in this campaign".

Two miles away in the staunchly unionist Woodvale, there is no shortage of craic on the DUP campaign either.

Sinn Fein candidate for North Belfast John Finucane talks to Political Editor Suzanne Breen. Photo by Peter Morrison
Sinn Fein candidate for North Belfast John Finucane talks to Political Editor Suzanne Breen. Photo by Peter Morrison

A massive squad of canvassers appears with some dressed as Christmas characters on a crisp clear night.

Santa's elf is party member Naomi Thompson. "That's my wife Eileen, allegedly!" jokes councillor Brian Kingston pointing to a reindeer. "3-2-1, Yo!" Team Dodds shout as they pose for a group photo before setting off to knock doors.

The seasonal spirit of the DUP canvassers is hugely appreciated as bedroom curtains open and those children still awake peer out in delight at the spectacle below.

It may be a month until Christmas but many houses are ablaze with lights and glowing Santas and snowmen illuminate front gardens.

"Isn't that amazing?" says Dodds as he gazes at one spectacular display, although he "wouldn't like to be paying the electricity bill".

As he knocks on doors, it feels more like he's meeting family than constituents. He knows these people inside out - their parents, children and in some cases grandchildren.

The DUP beat Sinn Fein by 2,000 votes in 2017, but the SDLP, Greens, and Workers' Party pulling out this time makes it more difficult.

But defeat isn't countenanced. "This man's going to win," Basil Hayes says of the DUP candidate.

"We need to keep this country moving forwards," Dodds says.

'This is a small house with a big welcome,' declares a wall plaque outside Betty Mahood's door. Greeting the DUP man in her pyjamas, she promises her vote. "I think he's brilliant. He's helped me a lot," she says.

"We try our best," the candidate replies. He stresses the need for "a working MP who takes their seat, somebody who will actually be able to deliver for people and help them".

Sinn Fein's abstentionism from Westminster is raised at many doors.

At every home, Dodds asks if anybody will need a lift to the polling station.

This election could come down to a handful of votes and the DUP is leaving nothing to chance.

Irene Robinson says she's DUP "through and through" because they're hard workers.

A male householder declares he's "100% a Nigel Dodds man". He would never consider voting for John Finucane.

At another door, resident Billy jokes that he's "voting twice" for the DUP "but don't be telling anybody."

He says the party gets a hard time over scandals but isn't praised enough for the £1bn it secured for Northern Ireland through its confidence-and-supply deal with the Tories.

Billy knows that North Belfast will be close but he hopes that "the Protestant people get off their backsides" and "with God's help", Dodds will win.

As the canvass ends, the DUP candidate looks exhausted. Months of intensive Brexit negotiations in London have been followed by an election campaign which sees him out "morning, noon and night".

Whoever wins North Belfast next month - Dodds or Finucane - will have worked for it.

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