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Suzanne Breen: Women will be to the fore in battle for South Belfast, our most diverse constituency and a Remain bastion



SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with Nichola Mallon (left) and Claire Hanna

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with Nichola Mallon (left) and Claire Hanna

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with Nichola Mallon (left) and Claire Hanna

South Belfast is shaping up to be a humdinger of an election battle. Three women can legitimately lay claim to becoming its next MP.

Emma Little Pengelly increased the DUP's vote by an impressive 50% to win the seat in 2017 when the SDLP was 2,000 votes behind as runner-up.

But Claire Hanna can argue that concern over Brexit has intensified to give her more than a fighting chance in what was already an overwhelmingly Remain constituency.

Alliance was 5,000 votes behind Little Pengelly in 2017 and, on that showing, won't be in the running. But the 'Naomi factor' meant it had a very strong council election in May and emerged as the largest Remain party in South Belfast by 2,000 votes.

Paula Bradshaw is asserting that this makes her the anti-Brexit front-runner.

Yet it is hard to look past that result two years ago. Council elections are markedly different to a Westminster poll.

The SDLP's 2017 candidate was Dr Alasdair McDonnell, and Hanna should have a greater cross-party appeal than him in this very liberal constituency.

The retired GP's staunch anti-abortion position was cited by the Green Party at the time as a reason why they couldn't back him as an agreed candidate.

Hanna would surely be far more palatable to that party and, if Clare Bailey stepped aside in her home constituency, it would be a major boost to the SDLP woman's chances.

The one chink in Hanna's armour is her so recent opposition to her party's new partnership with Fianna Fail.

Although she didn't leave the SDLP, she felt so strongly against the link-up that she stepped down as its Brexit spokesperson and resigned the Assembly whip. She still doesn't go to group MLA meetings at Stormont.

Hanna addresses the issue head-on in today's Belfast Telegraph.

A Damascene conversion would have been politically expedient, but she has not had one.

"The truth is that my views on this issue remain unchanged," she says.

The South Belfast candidate and her party leader are likely to be probed further on the suitability of her running on the party ticket given the circumstances.

Dr McDonnell had initially thrown his hat into the ring for the South Belfast nomination but Hanna secured the leadership's support.

However much Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon were disappointed by her stance on the Fianna Fail partnership, they have clearly decided she is best placed to win the seat for the party and that trumps any political differences.

But when the election is called, expect Labour and Fine Gael activists on the campaign trail with Hanna along with whatever canvassers Fianna Fail may send up to assist SDLP candidates.

In the meantime, her rivalry isn't first and foremost with Little Pengelly, it is with Bradshaw to see who will emerge as the clear Remain challenger.

Like Little Pengelly, the Alliance woman is known as a constituency hard worker.

She will be hoping to attract some moderate UUP voters, and even some DUP ones worried over Brexit, although their number should not be exaggerated.

Bradshaw's background - she stood in the 2010 Westminster election on a Conservative-Ulster Unionist ticket - lessens her appeal to nationalists.

Alliance is currently winning support far beyond its traditional base. But while a section of Sinn Fein voters switched to Naomi Long in May's EU election, it would be a big leap for them to endorse a former unionist candidate in South Belfast.

There is speculation that Mairtin O Muilleoir may not run for Sinn Fein this time. If his party fielded a less well-known candidate - or indeed didn't run in the constituency at all - that would massively help Hanna.

Both Bradshaw and the SDLP woman must reach far beyond their traditional base if they are to win. They will each attempt to portray themselves as leading a broad coalition of Remain voices.

Little Pengelly will be hoping that neither emerges as a clear winner and she can power up the outside lane as she did last time.

Hanna currently has a far higher profile than Bradshaw, but Alliance will be pushing their MLA on broadcast media as much as possible from now until polling day.

As for the ground war, all three women have already been out knocking doors, and the election hasn't even been called.

Belfast Telegraph