Unionist infighting and Sinn Féin votes should help McDonnell keep his seat


CONSTITUENCY PROFILE:THE LAST census showed South Belfast still had a unionist majority, but decades of inter-unionist quarrelling plus a big demographic shift and a lot of persistence gave the seat five years ago to a nationalist MP. The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell won on his seventh attempt, aged 55. Now continued unionist infighting could keep him in his seat. That and Sinn Féin votes.

Ulster Unionists and the DUP both ran candidates in 2005. McDonnell came through the middle with a slim majority, though the SDLP had 32.3 per cent of the vote compared to 8 per cent on his first try in 1979. The Rev Robert Bradford held his

seat that year, and two years later the IRA killed him, and a caretaker, in his constituency office. McDonnell succeeded Bradford’s replacement for 23 years, Orange Order Grand Master, the Rev Martin Smyth.

Some things stay the same: Sandy Row, Taughmonagh, the Village, the Markets and the Lower Ormeau are still the poorer, segregated bits.

But affluent Catholic families in leafy avenues and demoralised Protestants in the worst housing make a sharp contrast. Poles, Nigerians and a mix of other new immigrants have been drawn to vacant housing in loyalist districts. Big gardens off Malone are full of little Niamhs and Conors, the tea-rooms and dress shops of the Lisburn Road kept going by the earnings of lawyers and accountants with roots in humbler west Belfast.

Unionist desire to recapture South Belfast has outlasted some of their voters, who fled the green tide. While the DUP and Ulster Unionists in the constituency kept on talking, to no purpose, about the need for agreement in principle on a joint candidate, McDonnell for the past fortnight has been working the doors in the evenings, chapel steps on Sunday after every Mass, and primary school getting-out times.

He is a lifelong family GP with a clinic on the lower Ormeau, near the Markets. He left the practice last year but keeps his main office on the ground floor. On the southern fringe of the constituency he is greeted familiarly by a sizeable chunk of parents. “My da sends his best wishes . . . you were my mother’s doctor, you have our votes okay.”

It’s spillover country, new school and new housing. Boundary changes since the last election and newly registered voters should cancel each other out for him, he hopes. “A tidy register creates its own steam,” he says, aware the SDLP gets tagged as tired and short of activists.

In terms of vote-getting, he might be the ideal counterpart for Jimmy Spratt, the leading unionist candidate, though Spratt is a political novice. An RUC officer for 30 years, he joined the DUP to protest at the reform of policing. He is also an Assembly member and Castlereagh councillor. If he should win the Westminster seat he’ll give up the Assembly seat as soon as possible, he says.

This week he offered it to Paula Bradshaw, running under the clunky Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force (Ucunf) label; technically possible, it seems, if crude. She turned it down.

She and Spratt had already agreed to stand down in favour of a unity candidate. But her leader Sir Reg Empey couldn’t stomach another exception from the Ucunf promise to run in each constituency. Sinn Féin’s snap announcement on Tuesday that it was withdrawing veteran champion Alex Maskey from South Belfast – in a clear bid to embarrass the SDLP into a matching move in Fermanagh-South Tyrone – produced the Spratt offer.

He had a weary laugh for suggestions that the talks with the UUs were a pretence: “We did everything possible.”

He calls her “Paula” with what sounds like respect. She dismisses the insulting stooge theory by pointing to her day job in regeneration of the depressed loyalist Village – though Spratt posters dominate the redbrick terraces around the iconic Windsor Park football stadium, and the office complex that she and he both work out of.

New enough to frontline politics to be frank, having insisted she was willing to stand down for a unity candidate, Bradshaw also said an SDLP MP could not be equated with an abstentionist republican. She is civil about McDonnell, who is warm in response. He knows her posters in fetching blurred red/white and blue as per the Tory recipe in Britain, the soft-focus appeal and articulacy are only likely to translate into a good run at the next Assembly election.

It’s the Sinn Féin intervention that gives him pause. A friendly observer says he’s “worried Maskey pulling out will drive away his soft unionist support”. Which Sinn Féin would enjoy. Usually the most headlong man, McDonnell says circumspectly that he welcomes votes “from wherever, and I get them from all directions”. He calls Sinn Féin “the Provos” and some anti-DUP unionists like him. “The sort that think they’re awfully tolerant,” a DUP supporter says scornfully. “But if they see nationalists ganging up on them they’re not going to wear it.”

The candidates overlooked in the crush are the energetic Anna Lo for Alliance and a new young Green runner, Adam McGibbon. The Greens are trying to build a base. Alliance is proud to have Lo as public face for a conservative and reticent community, the North’s first ethnic minority elected representative.

To get home safely McDonnell needs DUP-phobic unionists, Bradshaw to take former UU votes that might otherwise drift DUP-wards, plus a slice of Sinn Féin votes. Local republicans are saying little. But McDonnell should make it.