Assembly Election

Constituency notebook: West Belfast: Unionists hoping to clinch seat

A winter sunset over St Peter's Cathedral and Divis Tower in west Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

NEGLECTED by the post-partition Stormont regime then ravaged by 25 years of conflict, West Belfast is among the most socially and economically deprived areas in Western Europe.

More than 20 years of peace has seen aspects of the constituency make advances, yet scratch the surface and you find a community still blighted by high levels of unemployment and poor standards of health.

The constituency has the north's lowest life expectancy at 74 years and the highest number of people claiming Disability Living Allowance, yet it receives just a fraction of the financial support that neighbouring South Belfast gets from Invest NI.

To many, West Belfast is a byword for republicanism and grassroots Sinn Féin support. In Westminster elections, where it's first past the post, this is undoubtedly the case and in the past two assembly elections Sinn Féin's dominance of the constituency has been similarly evident, with five of the party's MLAs filling six available seats – a record unmatched by any party elsewhere in the north.

In the 2011 assembly election, the sixth seat belonged to the SDLP's Alex Attwood. It's worth mentioning , however, that while Sinn Féin's presence in the constituency may be very strong, not since Bairbre de Brún held the health portfolio between 2000-2002 has a West Belfast MLA had a seat at the executive table.

Where previously the outcome in West Belfast was among the easiest predicted of the 18 assembly constituencies, this time around it could potentially throw up a couple of surprises.

Watch: West Belfast

The constituency's most notable political story of the past five years has been the rise of People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll. Elected to Belfast City Council in 2014, Mr Carroll was runner-up to Sinn Féin's Paul Maskey in last year's general election, taking just under 20 per cent of the vote.

Many people see the rise of the self-styled 'revolutionary socialist' as a indication that constituents are becoming increasingly frustrated with Sinn Féin and its record in government.

Mr Carroll has drawn support by backing disgruntled residents around Casement Park, resisting the council's privatisation of its leisure centres and joining striking healthcare workers on the picket line.

He's generally non-committal on the constitutional issue but whereas that was once the key question in West Belfast, it tends not to matter as much any more.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the DUP is hoping to regain the seat Diane Dodds claimed in 2003. The party is running former UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party councillor Frank McCoubrey, whose loyalist roots will serve him well in the predominantly working class unionist areas of Woodvale and Shankill.

Transfers from eliminated unionist candidates have helped bolster the SDLP vote in the past, which means it may prove more difficult to get the nationalist candidate over the line this time around.

  • 2011 share of first preference vote:

Sinn Féin 66.1 per cent

SDLP 13.2 per cent

DUP 7.5 per cent

PBP 4.8 per cent

UUP 4.2 per cent

WP 1.7 per cent

Others 2.2 per cent

Seats won by parties in 2011:

Sinn Fein: 5


  • List of 2016 Candidates:

Alex Attwood (SDLP)

Conor Campbell (Workers Party)

Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit)

Jemima Higgins (All)

Gareth Martin (UUP)

Alex Maskey (SF)

Fra McCann (SF)

Jennifer McCann (SF)

Rosie McCorley (SF)

Frank McCoubrey (DUP)

Ellen Murray (Green)

Pat Sheehan (SF)

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