openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Is the DUP about to lose Belfast?

The Democratic Unionists hold three of Belfast's four constituencies. Can they cling onto any of them?

Amanda Ferguson
25 November 2019, 6.04pm
Election posters in Belfast North
Amanda Ferguson

From three DUP and one Sinn Féin MP elected in Belfast in 2017 the landscape in the city could look very different come December 13th.

All eyes are on Belfast North as DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds battles to retain the seat he has held for the last 18 years. The DUP's Westminster leader is facing a serious challenge from the current Sinn Féin Belfast mayor, John Finucane.

In 2017 Finucane, a new generation of Sinn Féin politician, added more than 5,000 votes to Sinn Féin's previous total, and was just 2,081 short of Dodds.

The heat is on, and the DUP knows it, particularly as the SDLP and Green Party have decided to try to maximise the support for Remainer candidates by not standing in the constituency, where the only other person on the ballot paper is the Alliance Party's Nuala McAllister.

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The UUP has not stood for Westminster in Belfast North since it's ill-fated link up with the Tories in 2010, so Nigel Dodds needs to ensure he gets as many unionists and loyalists out to vote for him in a constituency where changing demographics mean it is no longer a safe unionist seat.

The UUP rejects the idea that threats against its staff from loyalists demanding the party not challenge Dodds in Belfast North is the reason it ultimately decided not to stand there.

In this two horse race, while Dodds and Finucane are both lawyers who have held Belfast's mayoral role, the contrast between them couldn't be starker.

Dodds (61) lives in Banbridge, Co Down. He is pro-life, anti same-sex marriage, a veteran Westminster politician, a committed unionist, and a Brexiteer who does not want to focus during the campaign on Boris Johnson's Brexit deal, which he believes is damaging to the integrity of the UK.

Finucane (39) is from and lives in Belfast North. He is pro-choice and pro-same sex marriage, a relative political newcomer, an Irish republican who will abstain from voting in the House of Commons, and a Remainer who wants to focus heavily on the damage he believes Brexit will cause Ireland and the DUP's role in that.

Dodds says he should be returned to Westminster because he has "a track record of strong delivery for everybody".

He wants to focus on health, education, housing, infrastructure and restoring Stormont – which collapsed in January 2017 when Sinn Féin and the DUP fell out spectacularly over the latter's handling of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive green energy scheme and around respect, or lack thereof, for the Irish identity in Northern Ireland.

Finucane says if elected he wants to tackle social and economic deprivation, housing inequality and the mental health crises he believes has been neglected in Belfast North.

He says the election is about Brexit (NI voted 55.7 to remain in 2016) and the future, and that Dodds has "misrepresented" the constituency, which narrowly voted in the EU referendum to remain.

Finucane, along with his family, has been campaigning for years for a full, independent public inquiry into the murder of his father Pat, a human rights lawyer, who was shot dead in front of him at home in north Belfast in 1989 by loyalists.

In 2012 the then prime minister David Cameron apologised to the Finucane family and acknowledged there had been "shocking levels of collusion" in what remains one of the most controversial killings of the conflict in Northern Ireland, a period of history often inadequately referred to as 'The Troubles'.

Abusive banners targeting John Finucane's candidacy, which follow on from death threats he received from loyalists when he was announced as Belfast Lord Mayor, have added to the toxicity of the already fractious Westminster campaign.

A banner in Belfast North
Amanda Ferguson

The DUP initially said they were unaware of the abusive banners targeting John Finucane and later Nigel Dodds said they were nothing to do with the DUP.

Dodds believes "the campaign needs to be about policies and ideas", which he says the majority in the constituency understand.

He also called on Sinn Féin to condemn all IRA violence, including an attempt to kill a police officer who had been guarding him when he was visiting his seriously ill child in a Belfast hospital in the 1990s.

When Finucane was asked by openDemocracy if he found it difficult when people ask him to condemn republican violence he says he has a "natural suspicion with selective condemnation".

He believes demands for "selective condemnation" indicates somebody who is "not serious about reconciliation and embedding the peace process".

"I think that I am very slow and reluctant to get involved in a debate whereby people will cherry pick incidents, and at the heart... it is really designed to fight old battles, to poke their enemy in the eye," he said.

"I wouldn't want my father's killing to be used to politically point score against any unionist or British politician…

"I think when we are dealing with our past it has to be more serious and well thought out."

Finucane says cherry picking is unhealthy, toxic and "leads you down a road where we see incidents such as banners going up".

"And I also worry that it brings us down a road where that could be escalated even more than just banners going up," he added.

Belfast North has never had a non-unionist MP, and so losing such a high profile seat, particularly to Sinn Féin, would be a deeply psychological blow for those with a British identity who are already concerned about the future of Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.

There is also a possibility of there being no unionists among the four Belfast MPs after the election.

Will the DUP keep any Belfast seats?

In 2017 Sinn Féin came within just 1,168 votes of becoming the biggest party in Northern Ireland’s the Assembly over the DUP and unionism lost its majority at Stormont for the first time in the history of the region.

DUP leader Arlene Foster described this as "a wake up call" for unionism, which galvanised voters in the 2017 Westminster election, helping the DUP to gain 10 seats, its 'kingmaker' role in the House of Commons and the £1bn 'confidence and supply' agreement with the Tories which flowed from it.

Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party which is campaigning for Irish unity, won 7 seats and the final seat was held by independent unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon who is not defending her North Down seat this time around, announcing earlier this month she was stepping back from frontline politics.

Outside of Belfast North, another part of the city where the contest is particularly heated is Belfast South, where Sinn Féin and the Green Party have stood aside for the SDLP, again they say to maximise the chance of returning a Remainer.

The DUP's Emma Little Pengelly, one of only two women standing for election for the party, will struggle to hold the seat, which she won in the 2017 election.

Alliance candidate Paula Bradshaw MLA could get a good show this time out if she capitalises on the surge the party experienced in the recent European and local elections but the biggest threat to DUP comes in the form of SDLP MLA Claire Hanna – who, like Finucane, has also been targeted by loyalists with abusive banners.

Banner in South Belfast | Twitter

There is potential for up to eight of Northern Ireland's 18 seats to change hands this election, with the only obvious safe bet in Belfast being on Sinn Féin’s Paul Maskey, the incumbent in the majority Irish identifying west of the city.

Belfast East incumbent Gavin Robinson should be safe in the unionist dominated Brexit voting constituency he won last time but he faces a significant challenge from pro-Remain Alliance leader Naomi Long MEP, a former MP for the area whose personal appeal and credentials should attract considerable cross-community support.

This reporter does not have a crystal ball so do not bet the house on the following, as a variety of factors could influence the result between now and polling day, but if forced to chose right now the final outcome across the four constituencies could be:

Belfast North: Sinn Féin John Finucane (DUP loss)

Belfast South: SDLP Claire Hanna (DUP loss)

Belfast East: DUP Gavin Robinson (DUP hold)

Belfast West: Sinn Féin Paul Maskey (Sinn Féin hold)

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