Belfast Telegraph

South Belfast's leafy streets shaping up to be key battleground in bitter election

Our man travelled to city's Lisburn Road to gauge mood of voters ahead of December 12 showdown

The Lisburn Road in South Belfast
The Lisburn Road in South Belfast
Bette Graham
Arthur and Helen Kingston
Tommy Morris
Ivan Little

Ivan Little

It boasts some of the most affluent avenues of any constituency in Northern Ireland - but just days into the Westminster election campaign as the gloves came off in South Belfast yesterday it was clear that the battle was already descending into a bare-knuckle street fight over Brexit.

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Unusually, the normal Orange and Green political lines were being redrawn, with former foes dropping out of the race to support one-time rivals, while paramilitaries were emerging from the shadows and threatening to make it a contest like no other.

One observer said division and rancour had been ratcheted up to unprecedented levels as not long after Sinn Fein withdrew from the fray, the Green Party backed out and endorsed the SDLP's candidate Claire Hanna, severely denting the DUP's hopes of getting Emma Little Pengelly re-elected.

The Greens' Clare Bailey denied she was playing the green card, so to speak. She said she dropped out to increase the chances of the SDLP's anti-Brexit Hanna winning against the pro-Brexit DUP, although the Alliance Party's Paula Bradshaw is also a Remainer.

Ms Bailey said that the "extraordinary times" of the new election campaign demanded "an extraordinary response" to unite behind a Remain candidate.

Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir, who fought recent South Belfast elections, told the Belfast Telegraph that his party's strategy in not putting up a candidate in 2019 was designed to maximise the anti-Brexit Remain voice. He added: "I think we need to do something we don't see enough of in politics here or anywhere else and that is to compromise a little, to give a little space, and stand back.

"We can't win South Belfast. We are the fourth largest party, and while I'm pleased my last vote was the highest vote ever, I know we can't take the seat.

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"This really is a critical time for the wellbeing of our people and of the peace process and reconciliation.

"We don't want to squander the very important gains of the past 25 years so I think it is right that Sinn Fein should say that we are taking a time out on this one.

We're asking people to vote for the candidate most likely to be returned as the Remain candidate here and in the other constituencies as well. Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir

Mr O Muilleoir, who denied reports that he was planning to move to America, said that in the 2010 general election Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey left the field to give the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell a clear run.

Mr O Muilleoir said the party's decision not to contest the latest election had been criticised by some of Sinn Fein's core voters.

"But I have told them there will be another day," he added.

The new election pacts have also been attacked by loyalists.

Blogger Jamie Bryson used his social media account to accuse the Green Party of "naked sectarianism" by joining in a "pan nationalist alliance designed to target a unionist in South Belfast".

He also condemned the SDLP for entering a coalition with "the political wing of the IRA, who count among their election team the Shankill bomber" Sean Kelly.

In part of South Belfast the writing was also on the wall, with a recently erected UVF mural in the Village area filled with fighting talk from the organisation's '2nd battalion, South Belfast'.

Loyalists have claimed Boris Johnson's Brexit deal is a sell-out and the UVF mural vows to prevent the "erosion of our identity, culture and heritage". It adds: "We will restore this no matter the cost. We will not be the generation to fail Ulster. No surrender."

Tonight "concerned unionists of south Belfast" have been invited to a meeting in the Sandy Row Orange hall at 7.15pm to stop what organisers are calling the Betrayal Act.

It's the latest in a series of gatherings in loyalist strongholds, some of which have been no-go areas for the media.

Just over a mile away from the Orange hall yesterday, on the Lisburn Road, the depths of the split over Brexit were all too apparent.

A number of potential voters pointed out that 70% of the electorate in South Belfast had voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum, but a year later a pro-Brexit MP was returned.

It's known that behind the scenes there's been pressure - and meetings between politicians - to strategise a plan to ensure that a Remainer emerges victorious in South Belfast.

Outside the Tesco supermarket, where signs proclaim that every little helps, there were mixed signals from voters about Little Pengelly.

DUP supporter Dorothy Simpson said: "I'm weary of the Brexit prevarication."

I think the DUP deserve support for their relentless efforts to get us out. DUP voter

Peter Bell said he was furious to see the Greens bowing out, adding: "Their policies on the environment have literally been a breath of fresh air, adding a new dimension to tired politics here. Their beliefs should have been the ultimate priority."

Other people weren't just tired of Brexit, but politics too.

Bette Graham said she wouldn't be voting because she was fed up with politicians at Westminster and at Stormont.

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Bette Graham

"What are any of them doing for the ordinary people?" she asked. "They should be tackling the mental health crisis in Northern Ireland for one thing. Just look at the way the number of suicides is rising all the time. People are suffering but nobody is listening.

"I mean, how can so many folk have to rely on food banks in this day and age?"

Tommy Morris said he was becoming more and more disillusioned with politics even though his children were deeply interested in what was happening.

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Tommy Morris

He said that even in the Westminster election, all politicians here would feel the draught from the Stormont stalemate. He added: "They should be getting away from the same old same old. They need to grow up and get together on the things that really matter to us all, like the health service."

If I wasn't doing my work for three years, there's no way I would be getting paid. Tommy Morris

Iranian-born businessman Mano Amiri, who has been here for 40 years, said he wanted Northern Ireland to stay in Europe.

He said: "I know there will be tactical voting going on. However, I want to support a Remain candidate because the politicians who want to leave have no idea about what is going to happen in the future."

Helen Kingston said: "I will be voting but I will be giving some of the people who call at my door short shrift over the Stormont situation. And as for Brexit, I am now totally and utterly confused."

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Arthur and Helen Kingston

But it wasn't just on the streets that there was confusion yesterday, particularly over where the pro-Remain Alliance Party will fare in the election.

In a BBC Radio Ulster debate Clare Bailey said Alliance had refused to engage with her over any possible alignment with other Remain parties.

"They didn't even respond to me and went ahead and announced their candidate (Paula Bradshaw)," she said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry, who was also on the programme, said on air: "That's not true, Clare."

He said she did have a conversation with Alliance leader Naomi Long, but Ms Bailey said she had no knowledge of any such discussions.

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