North Belfast: Patchwork constituency is hard to call
Close contest likely as six outgoing MLAs fight for reduced number of five seats
Gerry Kelly MLA: topped the poll for Sinn Féin in North Belfast last year. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
North Belfast experienced some of the worst sectarian violence of the Troubles. A patchwork quilt of nationalist and loyalist interfaces, it is comprised of areas such as part of the Shankill, Ardoyne, and the different communities living cheek by jowl off the Antrim and Crumlin roads.
More than 460 died in north Belfast during the conflict, and there are still strong paramilitary residues.
That was brought home during this election campaign when it emerged that in recent weeks the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had informed SDLP candidate Nichola Mallon that a bullet sent to her had been intercepted in the post. It is believed that the threat to Ms Mallon, who is six months pregnant, was from the UDA and that it was linked to her criticism of a local loyalist community group.
It’s not all bleak though. Last summer, for the first time in years, through cross-community and other efforts, there was a welcome absence of serious violence over the Twelfth of July period on the “peace lines” between the Shankill/Woodvale and Ardoyne areas.
Moreover, also last summer, 270 metres of peace wall was toppled along the Crumlin Road and replaced by a landscaped garden and a low wall topped by gleaming railings. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Electoral contests here are hard-fought. All six outgoing MLAs are competing again, but this time for five seats, due to the reduction in the size of the Assembly from 108 to 90 seats. Last May, the DUP won three seats, Sinn Féin two and the SDLP one.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly topped the poll and was elected on the first count, with the five other returnees coming in together on the 11th count, further demonstrating the tightness of the contest. Alliance’s Nuala McAllister, who is running again, lost out and was eliminated on that 11th count.
The DUP is trying to hold its three seats with just over two quotas, based on its 35 per cent of the vote last May. Based on last May’s result, if all votes cast for other unionist parties transferred back to the DUP, it could hold on to the seats of Paula Bradley, William Humphreys and Nelson McCausland.
However, with the “cash for ash” crisis and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt trying to create a new politics by saying he will transfer his vote to the SDLP in East Belfast, perhaps unionists won’t be so committed and disciplined in how they use their second- and third-preference votes.
Mr Kelly and his running mate, Carál Ní Chuilín, are seeking to be elected on the strength of 1.6 quotas, while Nichola Mallon is trying to get back with 0.6 of a quota.
Nuala McAllister could get close again for Alliance and, at a time when it is very difficult to fathom the public mood, she can’t be ruled out. Equally, Sinn Féin will be closely watching how People Before Profit candidate Fiona Ferguson, who won 1,286 votes last May, performs this time and whether she eats into its vote and hands some advantage to Ms Mallon.
This is a difficult constituency to call. Will the DUP, Sinn Féin or the SDLP lose out? How the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme plays here could be crucial in determining whether the DUP holds on to its three seats or Alliance makes a breakthrough.
While Sinn Féin has a strong and hungry organisation, Ms Mallon has been building her profile and, with Alliance, Green and other transfers, might retain her seat.
Very tentatively, it could end up: DUP, 3; SF, 1; SDLP, 1.
DUP: Paula Bradley, William Humphrey, Nelson McCausland
Sinn Féin: Gerry Kelly, Carál Ní Chuilín
Alliance: Nuala McAllister
Greens: Mal O’Hara
Independent: Adam Millar
People Before Profit: Fiona Ferguson
Progressive Unionist Party: Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston
SDLP: Nichola Mallon
Ulster Unionist Party: Robert Foster
Workers’ Party: Gemma Weir