Belfast West: PBP set for breakthrough, but will Sinn Féin or SDLP take the hit?
Ellen Murray first transgender person to stand for election in North
Belfast West candidates: Alex Attwood (SDLP); Conor Campbell (Workers’ Party); Gerry Carroll (PBP); Jemima Higgins (Alliance); Gareth Thomas Martin (UUP); Alex Maskey (Sinn Féin); Fra McCann (Sinn Féin); Jennifer McCann (Sinn Féin); Rosie McCorley (Sinn Féin); Frank McCoubrey (DUP); Ellen Murray (Greens); Pat Sheehan (Sinn Féin).
Sinn Féin got its election posters up early here to demonstrate it is very serious about holding its five seats in this six-seater constituency.
After all, this is the homeplace of party president Gerry Adams and, while he has decamped to Louth and Dáil Éireann, party pride and loyalty to the leader dictates it wants to maintain its supremacy in the constituency.
Such is the grip Sinn Féin has in West Belfast, it might be considered a given that the party’s five candidates will be returned and that the SDLP’s Alex Attwood should take the sixth seat, but, for once, there is an unpredictability about the result.
The sands are shifting a little in West Belfast and to such an extent that the Green candidate, 22-year-old Ellen Murray, is making history by becoming the first transgender person to stand for election in the North.
Mr Carroll competed in the Westminster general election in West Belfast last year and won an impressive 6,798 votes. That, if replicated, would guarantee him a place in the Assembly and possibly even make him a poll-topper.
He also ran for the Assembly in 2011 and polled 1,661 votes, but hard work, a strong campaign team and just a little West Belfast working-class disaffection with the political status quo, particularly from younger voters, has resulted in his steady political rise.
Belfast West factfile
How the constituency compares
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His big breakthrough was in 2014 when he was elected to Belfast City Council, an achievement that heightened his profile considerably. He describes himself as neither nationalist nor unionist, but as a “revolutionary socialist”.
His main vote will be from the nationalist side of the peace wall, but he also canvasses and wins votes on the loyalist Shankill Road, part of which is also in West Belfast.
He has accused Sinn Féin of signing up to Tory welfare cuts, notwithstanding Sinn Féin’s argument that it helped soften the effect of those welfare changes in last year’s Fresh Start Agreement. He also supports the residents who want to restrict the size of the planned new, and much delayed, 38,000-seater Casement Park GAA stadium.
He is a real threat to one of Sinn Féin’s five seats and also to the SDLP’s single West Belfast MLA – Alex Attwood.
Which is why Sinn Féin had the posters up and the canvassers out early in the constituency. Sinn Féin’s campaigning and vote management is a wonder to behold. Households in different areas are asked, if not instructed, how to vote down the line 1,2,3,4,5 for the party’s five candidates to maximise the chances of all five candidates being elected.
No candidate is permitted to get too many votes. In the 2011 election current Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey topped the poll with 5,343 votes but that was only 104 votes ahead of the next SF candidate, Jennifer McCann. Fra McCann polled 4,481 votes, slightly ahead of Sue Ramsey with 4,116, with the fifth candidate Pat Sheehan taking 3,723 votes.
Sinn Féin once more is perfectly capable of such tight vote orchestration. Its members understand the danger and therefore will canvass even more assiduously than normal to try to ensure that, if Mr Carroll is elected, it will be the SDLP’s Mr Attwood who takes the fall and not one of its five.
The odds might appear stacked against Mr Attwood who polled 3,765 votes in 2011, just ahead of Mr Sheehan who is running again. But while not disregarding Sinn Féin’s dominance in West Belfast there just might be sufficient lingering loyalty and support for the SDLP to get Mr Attwood over the line.
Here too the DUP can’t be overlooked. Its candidate is Belfast councillor Frank McCoubrey. Current DUP MEP Diane Dodds, it should be remembered, was MLA here from 2003-2007 and certainly there are enough unionist and loyalist votes in the constituency to elect a unionist. The problem has been getting people out to vote and ensuring a disciplined inter-unionist transfer of votes thereafter.
This could be a very big election for People Before Profit and Mr Carroll, and also a very long count.
The result could be:
Sinn Fein (4); PBP (1); SDLP (1).