Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

General Election: Umbrellas, flasks and long queues... on the ground in battle for Belfast

Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It was the north-south debate that generated more political heat on Thursday than the normal contentious talking point of the border.

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The outcomes of the election in North Belfast and South Belfast were the focus of unprecedented media attention.

The withdrawal of the SDLP from the North Belfast fight and Sinn Fein from the race in the south of the city threw up intriguing possibilities of change, worryingly so for the DUP.

It certainly was not a day for fair-weather voters, with the winter chill and the rain meaning that some people did not warm to the prospect of turning out for a December election. Even so, sources said voting had been "brisk".

The polls were suggesting that Brexit was not the main concern for many voters in North Belfast, which had a distinct sense of deja vu, mirroring Orange and Green divisions, and which the bookies declared too close to call.

The contest between Nigel Dodds and John Finucane, son of the murdered solicitor Pat, was clearly the defining battle of the campaign, with republicans itching to dump one of their oldest adversaries.

At the polling stations, supporters of both men were confidently bigging up their respective candidates' chances of success but privately, in moments of quiet reflection, some were not so sure.

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Both politicians toured the polling stations in North Belfast from early morning to buoy their party workers, who were armed with umbrellas and flasks to make their freezing election day duties more bearable.

Mr Finucane told his election team outside Cliftonville Integrated Primary School that early indications from the polling stations were "extremely positive".

However, not far away at Seaview Presbyterian Church, the message was similar from Nigel Dodds as he beamed with optimism at a polling station a few hundred yards from his Shore Road constituency office.

On the Cliftonville Road, the Pugsley family captured the festive spirit and turned heads with their elven headgear as they arrived to vote.

Dad Adrian and mum Aisling brought daughters Anita and Lillie with them to give them an "early flavour of elections".

We are voting tactically. I don't like the fact Sinn Fein won't take their seats, but I don't want the DUP to win because of their support for the Tories, so there's no real choice. Mr Pugsley

Mrs Pugsley added: "We have told John Finucane we understand the reasons for Sinn Fein's absentionist policy, but if they want to make a difference, they ought to be at Westminster."

On the Shore Road, meanwhile, DUP supporters were guardedly optimistic.

Barbara Murphy said: "I think Mr Dodds can win. I certainly hope so."

For Thomas Seenan, the issues were more than about Brexit and revolved around social problems.

He explained: "North Belfast needs investment and redevelopment on a massive scale and I think Nigel Dodds is the man to do it. I just wish all the politicians at Stormont would get back to work."

Andrew Harrison said he did not vote for the DUP in local elections, but did support them in the Westminster poll.

I think Nigel Dodds is doing a pretty good job in London and I would prefer to have him than an abstentionist MP. Andrew Harrison

In South Belfast, unlike in the north of the city, Brexit did appear to be a major factor in a healthy turnout of voters and transfers of allegiances, particularly in the leafy Malone Road area, where in mid-morning people had to queue to vote at Harberton Special School.

"I've never seen it so busy," said one poll veteran. "Even the staff in the polling station admitted they were surprised."

SDLP supporter Keir Herink, who had to queue to vote in Rosetta Primary School first thing in the morning and who was giving out leaflets for Claire Hanna at Harberton, said support for his candidate was "encouraging".

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Keir Herink

He added: "I've been told that a lot of people who would have usually voted for the Alliance Party's Paula Bradshaw were backing Claire instead because they thought she was the more likely Remain candidate to win."

Nearby, DUP supporter Lisa Meehan admitted that Emma Little-Pengelly was "swimming against the tide" to retain her Westminster seat, with the bookies making Claire Hanna the odds-on favourite.

"No one really knows," said Lisa. "I've heard from some voters who wouldn't normally back the DUP. They've been supporting Emma because she's a pro-life candidate."

One DUP voter had more than the weather to contend with as she went to put her cross against Ms Little-Pengelly's name.

Yvonne Milligan, originally from Farnham in Surrey, has to carry an oxygen tank with her to help her cope with a medical condition, but she was still determined to cast her vote.

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Yvonne Milligan

"I'm voting for the DUP because I am very worried about the Union, which I believe in," she said.

Dr Des Hall, who also voted DUP, added: "I supported them because they brought the government to heel and got millions of pounds into Northern Ireland by screwing their arm. They got cash where other people were just getting cheap words."

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Dr Des Hall

Peter Bowman said he was voting tactically. "I'm not a unionist or a nationalist and I usually support the Green Party. This time, I might have got behind the Alliance Party, but I voted for Claire Hanna because I am very much in favour of staying in the European Union. I want freedom of movement and co-operation," he explained.

Off the Lisburn Road, the polling station at Fane Street Primary School was a completely different picture from the one at Harberton. No one was handing out leaflets at lunchtime and only an occasional voter passed through the school gates.

William Brush said it was quiet inside the school, but he was keeping his polling cards close to his chest. "I have voted for a unionist, but I'm not saying which one," he told me.

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William Brush

Moya Limoni was something of a voice in the loyalist wilderness. "I am giving my vote to the SDLP because Claire Hanna seems to be intelligent and I am fed up with the MP that we have at the minute," she said.

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