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'The Protocol isn't the concern': How cost of living and health is dominating the Stormont election

The Journal joined canvassers in South Belfast to see what issues were at the forefront ahead of the 5 May election.

COST OF LIVING and health.

These were the two most prominent issues raised on the doors of South Belfast yesterday to campaigning politicians aiming to return to the Stormont Assembly in early May.

With bills across Northern Ireland rising, there were calls for politicians to do more to tackle the rising costs once – or if – an Executive is formed after the 5 May election.

The constituency of South Belfast, one of the more socially liberal areas of Northern Ireland, has seats filled by five different parties: The DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Greens and Alliance.

All of these parties will be attempting to hang onto their seats, while candidates in the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), People Before Profit and Aontú seek to dislodge and take a seat for their party.

In an election where the DUP is seeking to make the Northern Ireland Protocol a red line issue for reentering the Executive, according to RTÉ, unionist voters are not resonating with the messaging.

It isn’t unlike Fine Gael’s strategy of putting the focus on Brexit in the 2020 Election, where voters did not see it as the pivotal issue of the day and instead voted on issues surrounding health and housing.

Sinn Féin has made moves to play down efforts for a border poll, with former Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill saying that people weren’t “waking up and thinking of a border poll” and that the primary concern is now the cost of living crisis.

With the election just three weeks away, The Journal took to the doorsteps in Belfast with some of the candidates seeking to take a seat.

Warm reception

On the Ormeau Road, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole says that he has received a warm reception on the doors since campaigning began, which is followed up throughout the canvas.

20220419_145657 The SDLP's Matthew O'Toole, campaigning on the Ormeau Road in Belfast

He says that the two biggest issues being brought up across South Belfast have been the rising cost of living as well as problems people have had with the NHS, particularly long waiting lists.

Speaking to residents, they echoed O’Toole’s comments, saying that they were seeing issues with acute hospital care, with one healthcare worker saying that the issue is a simple one: that there just aren’t enough beds, or healthcare workers to tend to them.

To me, it’s very simple… There are just not enough hospital beds.

She tells O’Toole that there need to be short-term solutions implemented to address these issues before a wider reform of the health service.

Fed up with the DUP’s ‘stunts’

Also on the doorsteps, The Journal saw frustration with the Assembly and Executive, after £300,000 was unable to be spent after the collapse of the Executive in early February, following the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan.

One person said that they were fed up with the stunts being pulled by the DUP and that powersharing needed to be restored after the election to deal with the issues in health and the cost of living.

In the constituency itself, former DUP leader Edwin Poots is on the ballot for his party, after he was ousted from his constituency of Lagan Valley to allow the current leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, to run.

As the canvas continued, and O’Toole worked through multiple houses on his own, there were plenty of voters who told him that they were planning on giving him their vote.

When asked about his chances in the election itself, O’Toole said that South Belfast was a good area for the SDLP, with a strong result in the 2019 Westminster election, which saw former MLA Clare Hanna elected as MP. O’Toole replaced Hanna in her vacated seat and is now fighting his first election.

We had a really good result here [South Belfast] in 2019 in December. I think there is a high degree of people who like the representation they’ve generally got from us over the past few years.

At all doors, O’Toole pushes that the SDLP is seeking to send out £200 to every household in the country to help deal with the rising cost of living. He says that the money would not be means-tested.

“We are really keen on a doing big intervention and getting £200 out to everybody. Now, people say ‘shouldn’t it be means-tested?’ – and from our perspective if you start means-testing you create bureaucracy and delay,” says O’Toole.

Given the seriousness of the situation, we just think: Get in, get it all passed and get £200 out to everybody.

One person at the door acknowledges this, and says that once means testing starts, people who need it most are left waiting and waiting for help to arrive.

When asked how the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, was performing, O’Toole tells The Journal:

He’s among the strongest leadership we’ve had really, you know, in nearly a generation… I think he’s a very clear, distinctive voice for the party.

The Green wave

After an afternoon canvassing with O’Toole, we take a 15-minute walk across to Ravenhill Road, which is separated from Ormeau Road by the massive Ormeau Park.

At a BP filling station on the Ravenhill Road, Green Party leader Clare Bailey is waiting with her team of canvassers, all dressed in green hi-vis vests to show off their allegiance.

20220419_184552 Green Party leader, Clare Bailey Source: Tadgh McNally

After a final canvasser arrives on a bike, the team moves on to a nearby estate down in Ardenlee Avenue.

When asked by The Journal about her plans to tackle the cost of living, Bailey says that the main area where people are feeling pressure is on energy bills.

She adds that this “isn’t a new phenomenon” and that she had seen the same issue raised in previous elections, but that it is reinforced through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The energy lies in investing in renewables on this island.

“We have an untapped resource for solar, for wind and for tidal power here. We haven’t got the political will to implement and to build the infrastructure needed, and that will bring down people’s cost of living,” she says.

Young voter priorities

The team quickly disperses to doors up and down the estate, where a majority of the homes are two-storey duplexes housing individual apartments. In almost every door opened, young and first-time voters appear and chat with the canvassers.

Cara, a voter who recently returned to Northern Ireland after living in the UK for five years, says this will be her first time voting in a Stormont election and that her main priorities are both integrated education and the provision of safe access zones around abortion clinics.

She says that she has noticed a change since she returned to Northern Ireland, but that she wants to see this change reflected in the politicians which are elected to Stormont.

Bailey tells her that one of the last pieces of legislation to pass through Stormont before it was dissolved was a bill on safe access zones outside abortion clinics.

One of the voters to speak to The Journal was Roan, who told us that his main concerns ahead of the election were climate issues.

20220419_193002 Roan said that his main priorities were around just-transition climate action Source: Tadgh McNally

He said that a “Green New Deal” style programme, similar to ones promoted in the US and EU with a focus on social justice, would be on his mind when casting his vote.

He said that he was “really, really passionate” about climate action, going as far as to take a challenge against Conservative MP Steve Baker, who chairs a Tory-led Net Zero Scrutiny Group.

Speaking to some of the Green Party canvassers, they are confident that Bailey will be able to retain her seat but that they cannot become complacent as it is a tight constituency.

While she says that she has had a positive reception at the doors, she says people in Belfast are disillusioned with politics at the moment.

“The reception has been, to be honest, largely positive. People are disillusioned, but we get that all the time,” Bailey said.

I’m not feeling an upsurge in anger if the truth be told. I’m feeling an awful lot of resignation. People are really just thinking ‘what’s the point?’

Bailey adds that she believes that come 5 May, the results will show that people have an appetite for change across the country.

‘Unionism needs options’

As the evening rolls on, it begins to grow dark as we begin our final canvas in South Belfast, with Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) candidate Stephen McCarthy.

It kicks off just down the road in Knock Eden Drive, an estate on the edge of the constituency, which borders Belfast East.

McCarthy, who is a Catholic Unionist born on the Falls Road in West Belfast, is seeking to dislodge the DUP’s seat, saying that the party has repeatedly narrowed the appeal of unionism.

It comes after DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson called for unionists to rally behind the DUP and not to vote for other unionist parties, to avoid splitting the vote and allowing Sinn Féin to become the largest party.

“It’s a very short-sighted, poorly conceived effort to shore up the DUP’s vote,” says McCarthy.

Every time the DUP try and become the single dominant voice of unionism… The DUP’s appeal narrows, and the appeal of unionism in general narrows. Unionism needs alternatives, it needs options. It isn’t just one large homogenous group of people.

McCarthy says that there needs to be an alternative to the DUP and that he believes the UUP can fill that slot.

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He says that the UUP had taken its eye off the ball in areas like South Belfast in the past, but that it has returned and is in with a “realistic” chance of taking a seat.

However, he does say that the election across the country is unpredictable but especially so in South Belfast.

“I think in South Belfast elections are always a bit unpredictable because you have such a spread of parties. You have no party that can claim to be dominant in South Belfast.

It’s difficult to predict what way it’s going to go and it will come down to transfers and the latter stages of the count.

Northern Ireland Protocol

When asked about whether or not the Northern Ireland Protocol is being raised at doors, McCarthy says that it isn’t and that voters are more concerned about “bread and butter” issues.

“On the doors, it’s not coming up. Even in areas where I would expect politics to be more divisive, the Protocol isn’t coming up.

He says that he has met with community groups in working-class loyalist areas and when the Protocol is brought up, people have bigger issues to worry about.

“The majority of people I’m speaking to on the door are on the side of cost-of-living, they’re on the side of bread and butter political issues and the Protocol, is in many ways, not even a secondary concern for them.”

As voters appear at the doors in the mixed neighbourhood of nationalists and unionists, people again bring up cost of living and health, while local issues like flooding problems are also raised.

A nationalist woman, Patricia, who is working in her garden when McCarthy arrives to speak to her, says that he won’t get her vote but expresses her concern about the rising cost of childcare in Northern Ireland when asked by The Journal.

It’s very, very difficult for working families who work full time… It seems to me that people in the middle are really, really squeezed.

She adds that morale is at an “all-time low” within the health service after Covid-19 and that she can “totally understand” why nurses are leaving the profession.

Shortly after speaking with Patricia, at around 9pm, McCarthy decided to call it a night on the campaign trail rather than risk the wrath of voters by calling in on them after dark. 

The race for the five seats within Belfast South will surely continue to heat up as the days draw closer to 5 May, when voters will cast their ballots for who will represent them in the Assembly for the next five years.

The 14 candidates running in Belfast South are: Clare Bailey (GP), Paula Bradshaw (Alliance), Andrew Girvan (TUV), Deirdre Hargey (SF), Paddy Lynn (Workers Party), Luke McCann (Aontú), Stephen McCarthy (UUP), Neil Moore (Socialist Party), Kate Nicholl (Alliance), Elly Odhiambo (Ind), Matthew O’Toole (SDLP), Edwin Poots (DUP), Sipho Sibanda (PBP), Elsie Trainor (SDLP).

About the author:

Tadgh McNally

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