Abstentionist stance likely to hurt SF in South Belfast, says academic

Alasdair McDonnell makes his acceptance speech after being elected MP for South Belfast in 2015
Alasdair McDonnell makes his acceptance speech after being elected MP for South Belfast in 2015

Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy is likely to undermine the chances of Mairtin O Muilleoir unseating the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast, according to a leading political academic.

South Belfast has been held by Dr McDonnell since 2005, following divisions in the unionist vote, but he faces a strong challenge in the upcoming election.

In the Westminster 2015 poll, the former GP was elected on the lowest-ever share of the vote for a successful MP in the UK (24.5%).

His main opposition then was divided between the DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance, the Green Party and Ukip. This time, Ukip is not standing.

South Belfast is a diverse constituency, in parts leafy and affluent with a strong vote for the cross-community Alliance party, and in other parts transient, with many students and migrant workers.

Some of the most wealthy wards in Northern Ireland are contained within its boundaries.

Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University, said the SDLP’s criticism of Sinn Fein’s refusal to sit in Westminster resonated in South Belfast where there was a strong middle-class Catholic vote against Brexit.

He added: “The Remain vote would be quite an overwhelming one and I think that their concern over that issue would prevent them giving a vote to a party that simply will not turn up.”

Dr McDonnell is running on a ticket of urging people to reject the DUP-endorsed Brexit. He said: “This election gives the opportunity to send a strong message to the Tories. There can be no hard Brexit.”

Emma Little-Pengelly, a lawyer, former MLA and special advisor standing for the DUP, said strong unionism was required. She said: “Unionism and Britishness in Northern Ireland deserves respect and tolerance too. Unfortunately, that does not always happen.”

Mr O Muilleoir, a publisher and former Stormont minister, said Sinn Fein’s vote in South Belfast had doubled since 2005. He said: “We bring the message very firmly and very proudly that we are in the South Belfast election to win.

“We fight on the basis of being against the disaster that is Brexit.”

Michael Henderson, Ulster Unionist candidate, served in the Armed Forces for 26 years. He said: “The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to achieving a Brexit deal that works for our businesses, our universities, our farmers, our community and voluntary sector and our environment.”

This election has been characterised as a vote about Brexit.

However, for Alex Bunting, the political lobbying is around a most personal issue.

Mr Bunting, 62, tried to end his own life after a 1991 IRA blast under his taxi in Sandy Row.

He lost his business, moved to a different hospital to start orthopaedic treatment but was hurt again by another bombing.

Mr Bunting is among 500 people awaiting an official pension in compensation for his experience, but the DUP and Sinn Fein could not agree – largely due to dispute over whether terrorists would be classed as victims – when in government together and the deadlock is likely to linger after this June’s Westminster poll.

He said: “It is totally wrong as far as I am concerned.”

He said a pension would cost £2 million a year for the worst-injured, around £100 a week per person whose days have been numbered by their experiences.

He said: “Those who lost limbs, those badly paralysed and with burn injuries, their faces blown off them.

“These people are elderly. You are lucky if you get 20 years out of it.”

The other candidates are Clare Bailey (Green Party), Paula Bradshaw (Alliance) and Clare Salier (Conservatives).