North Belfast constituency profile: Old rivalries at heart of tight race

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

Image source, Rossographer
Image caption,
North Belfast ranges from affluent tree-lined streets to interface flashpoints and areas of deprivation

On a bright November morning close to the Shore Road in North Belfast, the DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds is busy canvassing.

It is an area he expects to get support from, so the veteran politician is on familiar ground.

A quick rap on a letter box and soon he finds himself inside the home of 100-year-old Oreen Bunting.

The centenarian is no stranger to elections and tells her visitor that she will be voting next month.

Asked if she is using a postal vote, she scoffs at the idea - telling Mr Dodds she will be going in person to the polling station.

Her response draws an admiring nod from the candidate who knows in next month's poll every vote is crucial.

Defending a majority of just over 2,000 votes over Sinn Féin 's John Finucane, Mr Dodds is confident he can win again.

Image source, BBC Sport
Image caption,
Nigel Dodds was first elected for North Belfast in 2001

He sounds upbeat: "The people of North Belfast I think will want to keep a positive representative taking their seat at Westminster.

"That is why we are very confident about this election. Not just unionists, but people across the board who want a pro-life candidate, someone who stands up for the rights of the unborn.

"Someone who is going to take their seat. "

The DUP is helped by the fact that the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is not fielding a candidate - a decision that came after a u-turn by the party.

Originally, shortly before he took over as leader, Steve Aiken said the UUP would contest the seat.

But after talking to local people he reversed that decision.

It was later revealed UUP staff had received threats whilst they considered running a North Belfast candidate.

Just as they did in 2017, Sinn Féin once again has the North Belfast seat in its sights and it has canvassing teams out constantly.

In the rain on the Antrim Road, John Finucane hands out leaflets and encourages voters to back him.

The current lord mayor of Belfast gets words of approval from a number of passersby and some drivers give him the thumbs up.

Sinn Féin has a simple message in this election and a large billboard nearby boasts that Mr Finucane is the only candidate who can beat Mr Dodds.

In the 2017 general election Mr Dodds beat Mr Finucane by about 2,000 votes.

This time the SDLP and the Green Party have stepped aside - they collectively polled about 2,500 votes last time..

They are crucial votes that could go to Sinn Féin, according to Mr Finucane.

Image caption,
John Finucane is hoping to go one better than two years ago

He tells BBC News NI: "The initiative taken in North Belfast by the SDLP and the Greens is something that I welcome, my party has welcomed.

"It has been reciprocated in South Belfast. I think it is bizarre situation that the city of Belfast, which is very much a remain city, has three out of four MPs as Brexiteers.

"I think that will change on 12 December. I think there is certainly that momentum in North Belfast where they want to elect a very proud pro-remain voice."

Not everyone buys the Sinn Féin analysis that only Mr Finucane can beat Mr Dodds.

Former Belfast lord mayor Nuala McAllister is running for the Alliance Party. The Belfast city councillor thinks she can pull off a shock .

Canvassing voters off the Cavehill Road she receives support from a number of householders who tell her they have voted Alliance before.

She rejects any suggestion that the North Belfast battle is a straight fight between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

She says: "There are many people who are relying on us to put ourselves forward and that is what we are doing.

Image caption,
Nuala McAllister says she can offer voters a different choice

"I am proudly progressive, pro-European and making sure that North Belfast has a voice and could have a voice in Westminster to stand up and speak for them, those people who want to remain in the European Union and across both communities right here in North Belfast. "

Tensions have been evident in North Belfast in recent weeks.

Posters attacking the Finucane family have appeared, there have been threats to UUP staff and controversy over the Shankill bomber Sean Kelly helping Sinn Féin's campaign team.

This seat presents one of the most intriguing battles of the general election and should it change hands it will cause shockwaves in Northern Ireland and in Westminster.

In terms of electoral drama this constituency has everything - a small majority, unofficial pacts and big personality candidates renewing old rivalries.

In this part of Belfast the battle lines are well and truly drawn.

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