All posts by Michael Morrow

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

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.

Jackson leads Ulster to crucial victory over Leinster

A stunning performance from half-back partnership Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar left Ulster to a priceless 30-6 victory over provincial rivals Leinster on Saturday.

At a packed out Kingspan Stadium, the Northern Province knew that only a win would keep their title winning hopes alive. In the penultimate weekend of the Guinness Pro-12 season, Ulster’s hopes of a semi-final berth hung in the balance.

Early in the game, it was the southern visitors that applied the early pressure but they failed to capitalise, penalised for holding on five metres from Ulster’s line. It was Ulster who then struck first blood with a Jackson penalty, which was shortly followed by a penalty try.

From then on, Leinster were always chasing the game, two penalties before half-time from outside half Jonathan Sexton kept them in the hunt. However, it was ultimately Ulster’s dogged defenced which ensured victory for the men in white.

Sustaining early pressure near their try line at the start of both halves frustrated Sexton and co, and it wasn’t long before Ulster applied their own second half pressure. A sweeping move involving Pienaar, Jackson and Luke Marshall sent fullback Jared Payne over for the try which really killed the game off as a contest.

Fittingly, it was Ulster’s 24-year-old fly half Jackson who had the final say on this occasion. He rounded off a fine individual performance both in defence, attack and from the tee firstly through a thumping tackle on Ian Madigan. Then, moments later, it was Jackson who intercepted a Leinster pass before displaying great speed to race the length of the pitch for the game’s final try.

In front of the on-looking Joe Schmidt, Jackson was clearly the standout number 10 on a field which consisted of the two men, Sexton and Madigan, who in recent times have been the preferred choices of Schmidt for a place in the Ireland squad.

It was a performance that kept Ulster’s season alive. They now go to Wales to play the Ospreys, knowing that a victory there will see them into the Semi Final stage.

In a season of inconsistency from an Ulster side who on paper should be a match for anyone in the Northern Hemisphere, this result suggested how good a side they could really be. With one more week of the regular season remaining, it really is all to play for, for the Ulstermen.

Prescription Thugs – Review

Drugs are never going to be a non-controversial subject, are they?

The title of this documentary film gives you a fair indication of what you will be looking at during the next hour and a half. It’s a Michael Moore-esque look at the American establishment, focusing specifically on the evils of prescription drug companies.

View ‘Prescription Thugs’ Trailer here

The film’s creator, director and narrator is Mr Chris Bell, a man who himself has struggled with addiction to prescription drugs. Not only this but Bell reveals in the first fifteen minutes that his older brother, Mike, died of a prescription drug overdose merely a few years ago.

Make no mistake, this is a sad story. An attempt to instantly grab the viewer’s heartstrings and to gently nudge them towards the immediate conclusion that prescription drug abuse is a huge problem in American society.

And it works. To begin with.

Over the counter, under the radar
Prescription drugs: over the counter and going under the radar

Throughout the film we are continually introduced to ostensibly good people who have battled with prescription drug abuse. From ex-pro wrestlers to mothers of four young children, the scope of the problem is revealed and continually emphasised.

The viewer is hit with some pretty damning statistics, such as the fact that in ten years, the top eleven pharmaceutical companies in the world made $711 billion in profit. That’s not spin, that’s fact. The facts given throughout the film absolutely lend themselves to the story-tellers intention of allowing the viewer to see that there is something fundamentally wrong and worse, dangerous,  with the American drug market.

However, after 45 minutes of sad tales and warnings I found myself wanting something different. What do the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  have to say about this cautionary tale? We’re told that a spokesperson from the opposing side declined to comment, which is a shame as the film ultimately needed such a comment to offer some balance.

In my opinion, the one-sidedness almost took the creator’s argument full circle. Essentially the point being hammered home throughout the duration of the film was, “Don’t listen to the FDA’s propaganda, they’re not giving you the full story”. A point which was, as I have said, well made to an extent. I ended the film feeling that the creator(s) hadn’t offered me the full story either.

As a documentary on an issue as contemporary as drugs it certainly offers some interesting points. By no means a ground-breaking documentary, but it is absolutely a relevant one to today’s society.

Michael Morrow

 

Further information on prescription drug abuse is available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse here: https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/prescription-drugs-cold-medicines