Assembly Elections 2016: South Belfast – it’s anyones game

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Lamp posts covered by posters, knocks on the door after dinner every night and a bare minimum of four leaflets coming through the letterbox every morning. Just some of the tell-tale signs that we in Northern Ireland are firmly in election mode.

Hard as it is to believe, we are indeed at the end of another five-year cycle. Over the last five years the ‘house on the hill’ has seen more break-ups, make-ups and dramatic moments than a series of The Only Way is Essex. And now, in the next few days the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls and the cycle will start all over again.

This time around, the election is threatening to throw up some intriguing results. Even areas like West Belfast, which has elected the same amount of seats to the same parties on the last three occasions, is looking likely to buck the trend. However, of all eighteen constituencies, there is unlikely to be a more absorbing conclusion than in the nip-and-tuck constituency of South Belfast.

In the 2011 elections, South Belfast voted for representation from each of the five ‘main parties’, with the SDLP taking two seats. Fast forward 5 years and not one of the elected MLA’s from 2011 are standing in the race again. This means that whatever happens, 6 candidates who have never previously been elected into position will take up a post at Stormont.

Tough time to be a postman. The parties leaflets
Tough time to be a postman. The parties leaflets in South Belfast

So, what can we expect?

Let’s start with the SDLP, the only party to currently hold more than one assembly seat in the constituency. The party as a whole has undergone a great deal of change since 2011, both in leadership and personnel. This is very apparent in South Belfast, candidates Claire Hanna and Fearghal McKinney are both current South Belfast MLA’s having taken over from the South Belfast stalwart Alistair McDonnell and Conall McDevitt in 2015 and 2013 respectively. The election will therefore act as something of a litmus test in terms of seeing how the constituency has taken to their co-opted MLA’s.

Whilst the party remain confident of returning two MLAs to Stormont from the constituency, it is difficult to ignore the bruising times that the SDLP has endured of late. A common argument against the party during the election campaign has been that the party themselves are unclear as to whether they wish to be part of a government or opposition at Stormont. Despite these protestations, we can be assured that at least one candidate will be elected with relative ease, and it is more likely to be the impressive Hanna, who in recent TV and radio appearances has dealt with issues such as abortion and gay marriage rights in some style.

That’s not to say the party’s deputy leader McKinney is out of luck. He is, however, likely to be involved in a bit of a scrap for the fifth and sixth seats in the constituency.

Another poster seen in South Belfast with two faces is that of the Alliance Party. Unlike the SDLP, this is the first time that Alliance have run with two candidates in the area. As calculated risk taken, one would presume, on the back of the 2011 election where the outgoing Anna Lo topped the poll with 19% of first preference votes to be elected on the first count. The Alliance Party now clearly sense an opportunity to gain another seat at the Stormont table in South Belfast and their two candidates, Paula Bradshaw and Duncan Morrow, both have genuine aspirations of election.

Much like the SDLP, we can expect to see at least one Alliance candidate elected with comfort. Despite her lower split of the area, it is more likely to be Bradshaw whose ground work in the community during previous campaigns (which saw here finish third in the 2015 parliamentary elections) should see her to the finish line.

Alliance received a great deal of criticism, particularly from unionist quarters, during the now infamous flag protests which began in 2012, remember them? But South Belfast candidate Morrow believes that the party can look forward and offer genuine change for the people of Northern Ireland,

“Part of my job as an MLA, should I get in, would be to ask myself what bring people here [to Northern Ireland]? What keeps people here?”

Morrow also believes that the cross-community stance which often sees the party labelled as ‘fence sitters’ is one of their strengths, and this stance is recognised for what it truly is, in South Belfast,

“We have championed the cause of the right of people to live safely right across this community”.

The potential for a second Alliance seat is dependant not only on how the second SDLP candidate fairs, but also on how well received the DUPs two candidate tactic is. Christopher Stalford and Junior Minister Emma Little-Pengelly both have reason to believe that electoral success could be coming their way, but their biggest stumbling block will almost certainly be the potential split in the South Belfast Unionist vote.

With candidates from the UUP, UKIP, PUP and former DUP member Ruth Patterson who is now standing as an independent, the unionist ticket is well populated. It all really depends then, on whether or not unionist voters are willing to transfer their votes in the STV electoral system to other unionist parties. Either that, or we will see a stalemate situation where each party takes a split of the unionist vote thus allowing the likes of SDLP, Alliance and Claire Bailey of the Green Party to share a greater number of 2nd/3rd preference votes.

Sinn Fein have taken the decision to only stand one candidate in South Belfast. Not taking the risk of two candidates means that their candidates Máirtín Ó Muilleoir will be elected without much fuss. Votes from large republican areas such as the Lower Ormeau road will see the Sinn Fein candidate easily past the post.

So it’s all to play for in South Belfast. A race so tight that it will most likely take two counting days until the 6 MLAs have been decided. For now though, the tense waiting game for every candidate begins.

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