East Belfast: Can DUP staunch Alliance ‘surge’?

Contest between DUP’s Gavin Robinson and Alliance leader Naomi Long is intriguinig

Gavin Robinson of the DUP is confident of keeping his seat. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Gavin Robinson of the DUP is confident of keeping his seat. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

How East Belfast unfolds largely depends on whether the Alliance “surge” of earlier this year is still gushing forward or whether the DUP has created a dam to slow down the torrent.

There are three candidates in the field: outgoing DUP MP Gavin Robinson, Alliance leader and MEP Naomi Long, and Ards and North Down Borough councillor Carl McClean of the UUP.

McClean will try to get a foothold in the constituency but most of the East Belfast public will know that this is a two-contender contest between Robinson and Long, between leave and remain, between solid unionism and centre-ground politics.

This is a particularly important election for the DUP. It is under major threat in South Belfast and serious threat in North Belfast. Were Long to oust Robinson, it could mean that after December 12th instead of the DUP holding three of the four Belfast seats it would be down to zero Westminster representation in the city. A lot to play for.

The non-appearance of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Greens in East Belfast won’t assist the remain candidate too much, as between them in the general election two years ago they could muster only 1,622 votes, a miserly 3.8 per cent of the overall vote.

Still, Naomi Long will need every ballot she can win if she is to have any chance of defeating Gavin Robinson. In 2017 he won the seat with 23,917 votes, close to 8,500 votes ahead of Long.

That is a big lead for Long to overtake. But then again she has been here before: in 2010 she caused one of the great shocks of recent Northern Irish politics when she took the seat from the then DUP First Minister Peter Robinson, winning by 1,500 votes. In the previous general election, in 2005, Robinson was 11,400 votes ahead of Long.

Popular Long

She certainly thinks she has a good chance. She is personally popular and since taking over as Alliance leader in October 2016 has increased the overall party vote from around 7-9 per cent to 12 per cent in the early May local elections this year and 19 per cent in the European election towards the end of May – the so-called Alliance surge.

Alliance leader Naomi Long is personally popular, and the party’s vote has increased during her tenure. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Alliance leader Naomi Long is personally popular, and the party’s vote has increased during her tenure. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The evidence from the canvasses, she says, is that the surge “is sustained”. She acknowledges that Robinson’s majority is substantial, while adding, “I have overturned a bigger majority to win it, so I am not too daunted by that.”

Long also acknowledges that sometimes the union trumps every other issue, but this time feels that Brexit and the collapse of Stormont are bigger concerns. “There is no question that people are annoyed with the DUP over the handling of both. That is certainly obvious from more moderate unionists but even obvious in some of the DUP heartlands,” she says.

Long is level-headed about her prospects but insists “there is a real palpable sense of frustration and anger and a desire to do something different” that could usher her in to the House of Commons.

Confident Robinson

Robinson, who took the seat from Naomi Long in 2015 and held it again two years ago, believes he can withstand the Alliance challenge and halt the surge. His “demise”, he adds, also was predicted in 2015 and 2017 when he first won and then held East Belfast.

He feels too that the DUP opposition to Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has got purchase on the ground because unionists fear that the so-called border in the Irish Sea would damage the union.

But Robinson agrees with Long’s analysis that there is great voter anger that the Assembly still is down, although he thinks the DUP is not taking the bulk of the blame in East Belfast. “Although this election is characterised as a Brexit election, Brexit comes up once for every five or six times that Stormont is raised on the door.”

Both Long and Robinson also agree that the campaign in the constituency isn’t as sour and bad-blooded as in some other constituencies. “The campaign hasn’t been toxic at all, actually, compared to the complaints and issues raised in other areas,” says Robinson.

The fact is that both lead candidates are personable politicians and it could be that very absence of poison that will help Robinson gain enough votes to stay ahead of his Alliance challenger.

EAST BELFAST CONSTITUENCY PROFILE

Candidates
Gavin Robinson (DUP – outgoing MP)
Naomi Long (Alliance)
Carl McClean (UUP)

2017 Westminster election
Gavin Robinson (DUP) 23,917
Naomi Long (Alliance) 15,443
Hazel Legge (UUP) 1,408
Mairéad O’Donnell (SF) 894
Georgina Milne (Green) 561
Sheila Bodel (Cons) 446
Séamas de Faoite (SDLP) 167
Bobby Beck (Ind) 54

Prediction
Gavin Robinson (DUP)