Analysis: DUP and Alliance throwing everything at East Belfast

Naomi Long and Peter Robinson at the East Belfast election count in 2010
Naomi Long and Peter Robinson at the East Belfast election count in 2010

David Ford mocked the DUP for its relentless focus on retaking East Belfast in May’s general election.

But it was an odd line of attack, because so much of his own party conference speech – and a great deal of those which preceded it on Saturday – was just as blinkered on East Belfast.

The DUP chose to unveil its candidate, Gavin Robinson, at its conference last autumn, and the party has been increasingly confident that it will fairly comfortably retake the seat, believing that it only lost such a unionist stronghold because Peter Robinson was facing a perfect storm of criticism.

At that point, Mr Robinson faced intense scrutiny of his expenses claims (he and wife Iris claimed £30,000 for food alone in a four-year period), revelations about his wife’s highly unusual financial links to property developers and incredulity over revelations that he had bought a strip of land from a property developer for just £5.

Though almost no one predicted Mr Robinson’s extraordinary defeat, with hindsight it is hardly surprising that the people of East Belfast swung decisively towards the straightlaced local girl who had an impressive council record and had just stepped down as lord mayor.

Retaining the seat without those circumstances would be a huge victory for Alliance. For that reason, it is focusing on the constituency rather than moving significant resources to neighbouring South Belfast, where potentially it could have been in with a chance in a crowded field.

Gavin Robinson is an exceptional DUP candidate to field against Naomi Long. Nevertheless, he faces several small disadvantages which in a tight race could be important.

His name will be beneath Long’s on ballot papers and some people erroneously believe he is related to Peter Robinson, playing into the 2010 criticism of the Robinsons that so many in the family were being paid by taxpayers.

Naomi Long has the benefit of incumbency but the handicap – a massive one, in the DUP’s view – of Alliance’s support for restricting the flying of the Union Flag on Belfast City Hall.

While that will cost the party some votes, the thuggish attempts to intimidate her out of politics (which clearly have failed) could persuade some people to vote for Mrs Long simply as a way of standing up to the loyalist paramilitaries who blight parts of East Belfast.

There is still a great degree of anti-DUP sentiment within unionism.

Ultimately, the outcome in East Belfast will come down to whether non-DUP unionists prefer Peter Robinson’s party to what he termed the “flag-lowering, parade-stopping, gay-marriage supporting, pro-water charging, holier than thou Alliance Party”.