Belfast East: Major tussle in store between DUP and Alliance
Return of Naomi Long could pave way for future leadership bid
The Northern Ireland Assembly election will take place on Thursday, May 5th. Each of the 18 constituencies – including Belfast East – will elect six Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
This Assembly election, barring calamity, will see the return to frontline politics of Alliance’s Naomi Long. It may even pave the way for her, eventually, to succeed David Ford as leader of the party.
She and two of her Alliance colleagues, Chris Lyttle and Tim Morrow, are contesting East Antrim in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, in a grudge match against the DUP. Currently, the DUP holds three seats, Alliance two – those of Mr Lyttle and Judith Cochrane, who is not standing this time, with the UUP winning the remaining seat in 2011.
Of course, the big change in Belfast East is that, for the first time in 37 years, the name Peter Robinson won’t be on the ballot paper. Two of the DUP’s outgoing MLAs, Robin Newton and Sammy Douglas, are running again, while Joanne Bunting is replacing the former DUP leader and First Minister on the bill.
The exit of such a vote-winner as Mr Robinson could change the chemistry of Belfast East, and even the result. Alliance is seeking to gain an extra and third seat, at the expense of the DUP or the UUP.
There are old scores to be settled here.
Mr Robinson was first elected as MP in 1979 when he defeated the late Bill Craig of the UUP by 64 votes. It seemed the seat was destined to be his until he quit politics, but in one of the great recent electoral shocks in Northern Ireland Ms Long took the seat from him in the 2010 general election.
Last year, Gavin Robinson, no relation of the former DUP leader, regained the seat for the DUP, defeating Ms Long. But he was aided by the UUP standing aside to give him a free run.
Based on that result – Gavin Robinson taking 49 per cent of the vote, Long winning 43 per cent – the advantage is with the DUP to hold its three seats. But the difference this time is that the UUP candidate will be seeking to get back the votes lent to the DUP from the Westminster election. What Alliance also will be hoping is that the absence of Peter Robinson’s dynamism and drive will further weaken the vote-winning capacity of the DUP.
Andy Allen was co-opted to East Belfast when the UUP MLA Michael Copeland stood down for health reasons. He is visually impaired and a wheelchair-user. He lost both his legs in a Taliban bomb explosion while serving as a ranger in the Royal Irish Regiment in Afghanistan in 2008.
Running for the UUP with him is Belfast city councillor Chris McGimpsey. Both are strong candidates, although it is doubtful there are two seats here for the Ulster Unionists.
As outgoing MLA, Mr Allen probably has the best chance, although Mr McGimpsey, who in the late 1980s with his brother Michael challenged the constitutionality of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, has the pedigree of a veteran UUP man and can’t be ruled out.
Belfast East was the constituency of the late David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force. Former PUP leader Dawn Purvis won the seat in 2007, but lost it in 2011 when she ran as an independent.
Belfast East factfile
How the constituency compares
Level: high. Rank: 6 of 1 8
Levels of poor health
Level: high. Rank: 4 of 18
On a good day, Dr John Kyle, who is running for the party this time, would have a chance, because previously here the PUP was able to take more than 10 per cent of the vote. The PUP, however, would need to regenerate some of the energy and enthusiasm that in 1998, 2003 and 2007 galvanised the notoriously reticent loyalist people to come out and vote.
In recent years, we have seen leaders such as the DUP’s Mr Robinson, Tom Elliott of the UUP and Dr Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP standing down or losing the leadership of their parties.
Equally, this election could prepare the way for Ms Long to, at some stage in the future, succeed Alliance leader David Ford.
It will be tightly-contested election and a surprise can’t be ruled out, but, in the end, the arithmetic may remain the same:
DUP (3), Alliance (2), UUP (1)
Belfast East – Declared candidates
Andy Allen (UUP)
Joanne Bunting (DUP)
Amy Doherty (SDLP)
Sammy Douglas (DUP)
Andrew Girvin (TUV)
John Kyle (PUP)
Jonny Lavery (Ukip)
Naomi Long (Alliance)
Chris Lyttle (Alliance)
Chris McGimpsey (UUP)
Tim Morrow (Alliance)
Robin Newton (DUP)
Niall Ó Donngahile (Sinn Féin)
Courtney Robinson (Labour Alternative)
Neil Wilson (NI Conservatives)