By Edward Ferrin – Chief Stormont Correspondent.
As election day draws nearer, the political parties and the candidates are gearing up for the last push to the polls. North Belfast is one area where voters will have an exciting prospect if they enjoy watching drama unfold on election nights, with local Sinn Fein MP John Finucane heading up the Sinn Fein campaign advert and the “time for real change,” putting a particular emphasis on the constituency in the run up to polling day.
All the candidates have been knocking doors across the northern part of the city, under the skyline of Cavehill, aiming to convince the voters that they are the best fit to be their next local MLA.
The following candidates are standing in Belfast North:
Sinn Fein – Gerry Kelly and Carál Ní Chuilín.
The main nationalist/republican party in Northern Ireland has led consistently in the recent opinion polls carried out by Lucid Talk, sparking the possibility of the symbolic result of the largest party being a non-unionist party at Stormont for the first time in history. Rallying behind Michelle O’Neill’s presidential campaign to be the next First Minister has been evident across the constituency – recent erection of posters with O’Neill on it have been an example of this in the Oldpark DEA. Local MP John Finucane has played a key role in the assembly campaign, launching the manifesto alongside party leaders and taking part in television and radio discussions about policy. Michelle O’Neill’s policy focus seems to be on the issue of the cost of living and planning for a referendum on Irish unity – although Sinn Fein have stated that a referendum will not happen in the near future, the DUP find a different view should Sinn Fein win the election. Sinn Fein are trying to image themselves as catalysts for change, even after 21 years serving as the major nationalist/republican group.
Although polling well across the region, the campaign in Belfast North has been tough for Sinn Fein. They hold the Westminster seat here, but look set for the battle to hold on to their second MLA at Stormont on Thursday – should they poll poorly or lose a second seat here, John Finucane will join Michelle Gildernew as one of those Sinn Fein MPs in 2024 who might lose their “marginal” to a strong unionist challenger.
DUP – Brian Kingston and Philip Brett.
The Democratic Unionists have been the largest unionist party here since 2001, and region-wide since 2003. The party overturned 13,024 1997 UUP majority at Westminster to an 11,814 lead over their unionist rivals in 2001, with Nigel Dodds becoming MP for the constituency. However, in recent elections the DUP vote and more generally, the unionist vote has weakened. Many believe this to be the case of a “dormant” electorate in the area, with low turnouts in polling stations where the DUP are more likely to get support. Nigel Dodds polled 21,135 votes to Westminster in the last poll in north Belfast and lost out to newly-elected John Finucane – many view the DUP’s support for Brexit and misrepresentation of this remain constituency as a reason for the election of the Sinn Fein MP after 18 years of electing Nigel Dodds to parliament. Both candidates are newcomers, Brian Kingston replaces William Humphrey and Philip Brett for Paula Bradley, who made the shock announcement that to care for her sick mother, she would not be contesting the election. The DUP campaign under leader Jeffrey Donaldson has been upon the anti-Protocol message among unionist grassroots – his party is trying to repair damage offset by Boris Johnson’s election in 2019 as Prime Minister, which seen the DUP removed from a power balance at Westminster.
Could a strong UUP or TUV first preference vote upset the DUP here?
SDLP – Nichola Mallon.
The SDLP has not been polling above 13% in region-wide polls since the beginning of the election campaign. Ex-DUP councillor, Lee Reynolds suggested a few weeks ago that Nichola Mallon would lose her seat in Belfast North on Thursday. She has been applauded for her work as Minister for Infrastructure with the new all-Ireland high-speed rail review, the new A5 road and zero-carbon energy buses for Foyle Metro. She is regarded as a hard-working MLA and if elected, would keep up the record of the SDLP winning an assembly seat in every election since 1973.
Will her vote be squeezed by Sinn Fein ahead of polling day or will Nichola Mallon hold her seat at the expense of a second Sinn Fein MLA?
Green Party NI – Malachai O’Hara.
The Green Party has focused their attention on the climate emergency in the constituency, with recent gorse fires in Cavehill providing an example of the damaging impact of climate change. Mal O’Hara as the deputy leader of the party has focused his campaign upon his record at local government level, including his stance on social issues and civil rights for the LGBT community and women accessing safe abortion zones. His campaign has been energised by an unusually high number of workers for his campaign – he will hope that this will help him cover the constituency in time for May 5th, but will he make the cut?
Alliance Party – Nuala McAllister.
As a former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister is hoping to ride high on the success of the “Alliance Surge” in 2019, when she topped the local government poll in the Castle DEA. Having won just shy of 5,000 votes in the last Westminster election, the Alliance campaign has focused upon the possible cliff edge Stormont faces after the election, if the DUP or UUP refuse to nominate a deputy-First Minister if they are entitled and bound to do so. Focus on the health service, integrated education and Alliance’s “green new deal” have been the focus of Nuala McAllister’s candidacy. If anything, this election is providing Alliance with a big opportunity to win a seat here for the first time since 1982.
However, could the lack of Alliance campaigning in the Oldpark DEA leave Nuala McAllister without enough votes come Thursday?
Aontú – Seán MacNiocaill.
The newly founded party has run a low-key campaign for the assembly here. Their candidate’s focus has been on the waiting lists across the region, support to stop MLA salaries when Stormont collapses and the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s refusal to oppose abortion – the party split from Sinn Fein over the issue of the right to life for the unborn child. It will be interesting to see if the party can make inroads into the SDLP/Sinn Fein vote.
UUP – Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston.
As an ex-PUP councillor for Oldpark, Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston has become one of the new recruits for Doug Beattie’s “union of people” and is hoping to cache in on the dismay at the handling of Brexit and the Protocol under the DUP. The Ulster Unionist candidate supports a tourism strategy for north Belfast, two new train halts along the railway line between Belfast and Whiteabbey, public sector land to be used for social housing, improving mental health services including the setting up of a single mental health trust in Northern Ireland and tackling the rising cost of living by reducing the cost of school uniforms. The Ulster Unionist Party is hoping to go with the high on enthusiasm for its “fresh leadership for Northern Ireland.”
Workers’ Party – Lily Kerr.
The Workers’ Party is aiming to focus its campaign in the constituency on the cost of living, health, housing, education and jobs. Lily Kerr as the candidate for the party in north Belfast aims to make inroads for the “socialist alternative to sectarianism and tribal politics” in an area where its previous candidate Gemma Weir found difficult to win over 1000 votes in previous elections.
People Before Profit – Fiona Ferguson.
People Before Profit and Fiona Ferguson won their first ever council seat in north Belfast in 2019 when she was elected for the Oldpark DEA constituency. She was elected on the back of huge transfers from the SDLP candidate Paul McCusker. People Before Profit’s campaign is the focus on the soaring prices with cost of living, stagnant wages and Stormont inaction. She also promises to bust inflation, tax the rich to fund services, cut energy costs and expand National Health Service funding alongside a major social housing programme. It will be interesting to see how she will do in this election and whether or not she will be able to decide who wins the last seat with her transfers in the latter stages of the campaign, should she fail in her quest to win a seat for her party.
TUV – Ron McDowell.
Jim Allister’s party has been riding high on the dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland protocol, including attendance at anti-protocol rallies. Ron McDowell as the candidate for north Belfast has focused on the issue of a possible Sinn Fein First Minister, his party’s opposition to the NI. Protocol, maximising the unionist vote, ending mandatory coalition, ending Irish language funding which the party calls “discriminatory,” putting health and education at the forefront of other policy. For the party that is resemblant of 1980s Thatcherism in economic terms, the TUV are hoping to make grassroots in working class areas of north Belfast and win a seat for the first time outside the north Antrim constituency to the assembly. It is clear that should they fail, the DUP or UUP will probably hoover up these vital transferable votes.
Independent – Stafford Ward.
For someone who grew up and lives along the Shore Road and who has been active in community affairs, Stafford Ward is aiming to defeat the party politics in the constituency and become the first independent MLA since 1998.
PUP – Billy Hutchinson.
Demoralised after the defection of Julie-Anne Corr-Johnson to the Ulster Unionist Party, the PUP are enlisting their party leader in north Belfast to try and measure the working class loyalist vote amidst growing speculation and concern over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Billy Hutchinson has contested the seat before, being elected in 1998 as an MLA before losing his seat in 2003 and since then losing out in 2007 2011 and 2016. Recent media coverage on the rise of paramilitary threats in north Belfast may harm the PUP’s campaign, especially after the threat made to Simon Coveney in north Belfast a few weeks ago.
My Prediction –
1 SDLP, 1 SF, 1 DUP, 1 Alliance and 1 UUP.