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Final countdown: On the doorsteps with the DUP and SDLP in one of the North's tightest races

The SDLP and the DUP are locked in a tight contest in Belfast South.

Image: PA/PA Images

VOTERS IN THE North will go to the polls tomorrow in an election all parties are promising could help determine the direction of Brexit. 

For once, the election is proving difficult to predict. In North Down, it’s a too-close-to-call race to decide who the successor to Independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon might be, while in North Belfast Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane is in contention to unseat DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds. 

But it’s in Belfast South, a constituency that covers everything from the student flats of the city centre to the leafy suburbs of the Malone Road, where the battle between the forces of Remain and Leave will be most closely watched. 

The SDLP’s Claire Hanna is aiming to unseat the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly, who pulled off something of a surprise victory at the 2017 election to defeat former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.

Two years later, some are predicting Little Pengelly may lose it amid a growing dissatisfaction with the DUP over Brexit.

In Westminster, she has joined her DUP colleagues in voting repeatedly against first Theresa May’s and now Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. 

Today, out doing a final canvas with her dad, a loyalist activist, the DUP candidate is bullish about her prospects tomorrow.

“This was always going to be a tight race. The SDLP won it by a couple of thousand votes in 2015, we won it for the DUP by 2,000 votes in 2017,” she says. “Then you add onto that that Sinn Féin have pulled out, of course it makes it more challenging,” she tells TheJournal.ie.

Sinn Féin’s decision not to contest the race in a bid not to split the Remain vote was a key moment in the campaign and immediately left Little Pengelly facing a serious struggle.

But “a lot of people are very animated, particularly about the union”, she says. 

Some voters, she adds, will always “wobble” – but that’s the nature of politics.

Still, the largest party in the North could be in for something of a seismic shock. Commentators have warned that both Leave and Remain unionist voters, armed with plenty of grievances over the DUP’s botched approach to Brexit and doomed pact with Boris Johnson, could punish the party at the polls tomorrow. 

“People aren’t happy about the way Brexit has been handled, no matter what side,” Little Pengelly admits. 

This morning, campaigning in the Belvoir area of the city, her focus was on encouraging turnout. 

IMG_7254 The SDLP's campaign literature in Belfast South. Source: TheJournal.ie

One particular working class district, Drumart Square, is an example of the kinds of places Little Pengelly is relying on  – she says that support levels for the DUP are at 60% to 70%. 

Two flats loom over the square - locals say that residents were meant to be re-housed after the Grenfell disaster in London, but nothing has happened so far. With a tattered flag on a lamp-post calling for no prosecutions for the British soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday, it seems as safe a DUP spot as you might find in Belfast.

But one woman, who didn’t give her name, told TheJournal.ie that many in the area would only be backing the DUP reluctantly in this election. Many, she said, thought that the delays to Brexit had become a “betrayal”.

People will be voting for the party out of fear of a united Ireland, she said. 

It’s a concern that the DUP has been trying to tap into. On Little Pengelly’s leaflets, she tells people that only the DUP can “protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom”.

Critics of the DUP would say it’s Arlene Foster who has helped place it in jeopardy. But Little Pengelly says that people will understand that the blame should lie squarely with Johnson. 

Besides, she argues that the election is about much more than Brexit. 

And she’s not wrong. The election has coincided with a genuine crisis in the North’s healthcare system – workers are currently fighting for pay parity with the rest of the UK and increased staffing levels.  

A major healthcare strike is expected next week and the crisis has dominated media coverage here in recent weeks. Staff across a vast array of NHS services are expected to take to picket lines across the North next Wednesday. 

“On the doors, it hasn’t just been a Brexit election. Brexit of course comes up, it comes up in certain areas more than others. But ultimately, what comes up the most is health and no Northern Ireland Assembly,” says Little Pengelly. 

She says she has been trying to assure people that the DUP wants the Assembly, which collapsed nearly three years ago, to return.

“We didn’t collapse the Assembly, we have been willing to go back immediately. We are not for asking for anything to go back,” she says. 

SDLP

A short journey away in a middle-class suburb of Carryduff, which is home to voters with a wider array of party allegiances, Claire Hanna is hearing the same concerns. On one doorstep, a woman bemoans the state of the healthcare system in the North and the length of the waiting lists. 

She also asks why the Executive still hasn’t returned. 

It would have been better if it never collapsed, sighs Hanna. But she says there are signs that the North’s parties might be willing to get around a table again. 

Hanna, an MLA for the area, says she has been hearing similar concerns for weeks. The SDLP candidate and her team of 120 campaigners have been stressing that she is a local, a Remainer and an expert on Brexit. 

However, it was only in February that her future seemed uncertain after she opposed the SDLP’s partnership with Fianna Fáil. 

“I remember saying about three weeks ago, ‘God, I wish the election was today, I would definitely have won’, because there was a real motivation and enthusiasm. And then it has just inevitably dragged on a little bit and it’s Christmassy and people have shit to do,” she says. 

Still, she is quietly confident ahead of tomorrow’s vote. 

“We have done everything we can. I’m not into sporting analogies, but we have done everything we can, we have left nothing behind,” she says. 

Hanna is seen as something of the favourite. Sinn Féin polled over 7,000 votes in 2017 and if the party’s supporters back her, she has a strong chance of winning. 

However, Hanna disagrees that the Sinn Féin backing was a pivotal moment. Instead, she sees the Green Party’s blessing as the one that could help swing the election. 

“That really substantially contributed to it being a post-sectarian campaign and took it outside of what could have been perceived as a nationalist thing, because I think the Greens are well respected for being beyond that,” she says. 

We’re knocking on every door this time, because we need people coming from Alliance, Green, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionist and non-voters. And we’re finding it.

It’s not the only backing she’s got. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have all fallen over themselves to help Hanna’s campaign, with even a bus load of Young Fine Gaelers joining her on the campaign trail. 

Today, her campaign team is somewhat older – no one on the team today was under 50. But Hanna says that hasn’t been the trend throughout the campaign, which has attracted a lot of twenty- and thirty- somethings who are beginning to be discontented with the state of the public services in the North. 

Her last piece of campaign literature – which prompted coos and chuckles from canvassers today – asks voters if they want a “scared future” – underscored by photos of Little Pengelly, Johnson and Ian Paisely Jnr – or a “shared future”. 

Dramatic campaign literature aside, the party has been making pains to stress it’s taking a positive approach to the campaign. However, that doesn’t stop it hoping that disaffection will deliver votes tomorrow. 

“I think the support is there. It’s just the extent we can turn it out,” she says.

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