Belfast North: UUP hoping Rev Dr Lesley Carroll is answer to their prayers
DUP’s three seats under pressure from UUP, Alliance and PUP
The Northern Ireland Assembly election will take place on Thursday, May 5th. Each of the 18 constituencies – including Belfast North – will elect six Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
There is a fascinating inter-unionist contest in the constituency, where a reverend doctor – who, for the moment, has abandoned the sacred world of religion for the profane business of politics – has her eye on a DUP seat.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt – who is developing a reputation for, thinking outside the box – has inveigled north Belfast Presbyterian Minister, the Rev Dr Lesley Carroll, to join the UUP and contest North Belfast.
In the last century this was UUP territory, but, since Nigel Dodds took the Westminster seat from Cecil Walker in 2001, the DUP established itself as the dominant party with Sinn Féin close behind. Now the UUP is hoping to regain some lost ground.
For years, Fred Cobain was the standard bearer for the UUP in this constituency, but in the 2011 Assembly elections he was ousted, with the DUP gaining three seats for Nelson McCausland, William Humphrey and Paula Bradley.
These three candidates are running again, but Dr Carroll is posing a serious threat to one of those seats. Belfast city councillors, Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party and Nuala McAllister of Alliance, also believe they are in with a chance of causing a shock.
Mr Hutchinson of the PUP, which is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force, was an Assembly member here during the 1998-2003 mandate, but, since then, particularly with the death of the PUP’s charismatic leader David Ervine, fortunes have waned. Yet, Mr Hutchinson, who is a Belfast city councillor, still has a decent political profile and if the PUP could recapture the vigour and enthusiasm of the past in North Belfast he could have a chance.
In the last assembly election Alliance polled over 2,000 votes, while in last year’s Westminster poll its candidate Jason O’Neill won 2,941 votes. On such a showing, and with a positive transfer, Ms McAllister, a Belfast city councillor, could take a seat.
Dr Carroll however, with her high profile, could be the chief outsider. She has been involved in cross-community work, has regularly appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s Thought for the Day and is deputy chief commissioner at the North’s Equality Commission. She is standing down from her ministry and the commission during the election.
Mr Nesbitt said, if elected, the Presbyterian church’s loss would be politics’ gain. “Like me, she is a relative latecomer to seeking elected office and that is no bad thing, given the mix of life experiences among the current MLAs,” he said.
What could play against her among some unionists is that she was a member of the Eames- Bradley Consultative Body on the Past which recommended that all families bereaved during the Troubles should receive a £12,000 special payment – a proposal that scuppered its report.
Sinn Féin is running its two outgoing MLAs – Gerry Kelly and the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Carál Ní Chuilín – whereas in 2011 it ran three candidates. It’s reckoned that if veteran SDLP man Alban Maginness hadn’t decided to stand down it would have tried for a third seat by unseating Mr Maginness, but instead Sinn Fein has gone for consolidation rather than expansion.
The fact that it has limited its ambitions is a backhanded tribute to the new SDLP candidate, former Belfast lord mayor Nichola Mallon. Previously, she was more involved in backroom SDLP strategy work, but her talent was spotted and she was co-opted on to Belfast City Council in 2010, and elevated to the lord mayorship for the year 2014-2015.
She is a popular politician and seen as a coming figure within the SDLP. She is the single SDLP candidate and it would be a surprise were she not returned.
Belfast North factfile
How the constituency compares
Level: high. Rank: 3 of 1 8
Levels of poor health
Level: high. Rank: 2 of 18
This is a constituency where unemployment cuts deep and it also will be interesting to see whether Fiona Ferguson of People Before Profit, with its anti-austerity campaigning, can win a significant vote.
The DUP will work hard to maintain its three seats, but it faces a serious threat from the UUP and Alliance, and perhaps even the PUP. Dr Carroll may have the best chance of upsetting the status quo. But if she is to win she must mount a full-throttle campaign. It will take the campaign to determine whether she can develop that momentum. The prognosis could change but as a political neophyte she may just fall short.
In a very tight contest, the result could be same as was:
DUP (3); Sinn Féin (2); SDLP (1).
Ken Boyle (Ukip)
Paula Jane Bradley (DUP)
Tom Burns (Ind)
Lesley Carroll (UUP)
Geoff Dowey (NI First)
Fiona Ferguson (PBP)
Fra Hughes (Ind)
William Humphrey (DUP)
Billy Hutchinson (PUP)
Gerry Kelly (Sinn Féin)
Nichola Mallon (SDLP)
Nuala McAllister (Alliance)
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
John Miller (TUV)
Carál Ní Chuilín (Sinn Féin)
Malachai O’Hara (Greens)
Abdo Thabeth (NI Lab Rep)
Gemma Weir (Workers’ Party)