Northern Ireland

Constituency Profile: East Belfast

Is the Long wait over or can the default DUP leader prevail once more?

The Harland & Wolff cranes Samson and Goliath above a foggy East Belfast. PICTURE: ARTHUR ALLISON/PACEMAKER

East Belfast is arguably where the DUP is at its most vulnerable on July 4.

For the party to be ‘decapitated’ with the loss of leader Gavin Robinson’s seat would be yet another setback in three years of turmoil since the coup that saw Arlene Foster unceremoniously ousted.

When a 30-something Naomi Long first contested the East Belfast Westminster seat in 2005 she received just over 12% of the vote and came in third place behind sitting MP Peter Robinson and UUP leader in waiting Sir Reg Empey.

It was her party’s poorest performance ever in what was then regarded as an overwhelmingly unionist constituency.

Five years later the then Alliance deputy leader topped the poll, famously unseating the DUP leader.

In many ways it was a turning point for her party which had been languishing electorally in the years after the Good Friday Agreement.

Yet Mrs Long failed in her 2015 defence of the seat, losing by 2,597 votes to her predecessor’s namesake, former DUP lord mayor Gavin Robinson, in what was effectively a two-horse race with no Ulster Unionist candidate running. In the years preceding the DUP’s victory, a coalition of unionists in East Belfast ran an inglorious campaign against Alliance, including the distribution of a leaflet that blamed the party for the decision to fly the union flag at City Hall on designated days only.

DUP leader Peter Robinson losing his East Belfast Westminster seat to the Alliance's Naomi Long was one of a number of watershed moments in Northern Ireland elections.
Peter Robinson with Naomi Long after losing his East Belfast Westminster seat in 2010

Following his election victory, Mr Robinson made what many regard as an uncharacteristically barbed acceptance speech, which served to increase the animosity between the two rival camps.

The sitting MP increased his majority to 8,474 in 2017 when despite the presence of Ulster Unionist Hazel Legge and five other candidates on the ballot paper, the two front runners secured almost 92% of the vote between them.

In 2019′s so-called Brexit election, as nationalists and progressives stood aside in East Belfast and other constituencies to enable a consolidation of the Remain-supporting vote, the Alliance leader missed out again but closed the gap on Mr Robinson to 1,819 votes.

Ahead of this election, Mrs Long – now justice minister in the Stormont executive – dithered over whether she would run or not, with most observers believing she is the only Alliance candidate capable of taking out Mr Robinson, who assumed the DUP leadership by default in April following Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s shock resignation.

The momentum behind the ‘Alliance surge’ that saw Mrs Long take a European seat in 2019 and three years later boost her party’s assembly representation from 9 to 17 is thought to have eased but equally polling indicates that support for the DUP overall compared to the last general election is down roughly by one-third to around 21%.

Were it a straight race between Alliance and the DUP, the latter would likely edge it, however, the TUV’s decision to run, effectively acting as a spoiler against what it terms the “protocol implementers” could shift the balance in Mrs Long’s favour.

TUV candidate John Ross is a Falklands War veteran who previously described Bloody Sunday as a “successful operation”.

Gavin Robinson has sought to distance himself from the ‘Donaldson Deal’ in recent weeks but it’s tactic that looks glaringly like expediency, and only highlights unionism’s general confusion.

The remaining candidates – SDLP, UUP and Greens – won’t like being characterised as also rans or paper candidates but East Belfast is a binary contest where a large proportion of votes will be used tactically or not at all.

East Belfast