Northern Ireland

Constituency Profile: South Belfast and Mid Down

The once safe unionist seat has transformed into one of the north’s most socially, ethnically and religiously diverse constituencies

The Ormeau Road in Belfast was named the second best place to live in Northern Ireland in The Sunday Times Best Places to Live guide. Picture by Hugh Russell
The Ormeau Road in south Belfast. PICTURE: HUGH RUSSELL

Of all the north’s 18 parliamentary constituencies, boundary changes introduced last year have had the greatest impact on South Belfast, which as consequence is now called South Belfast and Mid Down.

The new constituency has almost doubled in size and now includes swathes of countryside along with the villages of Saintfield and Moneyreagh, while urban areas such as lower Ravenhill Road have moved into neighbouring East Belfast.

The changes haven’t altered the overall demographics significantly, with predominantly unionist areas being replaced by those more favourable to unionism and to a lesser degree, Alliance.

Historically regarded as a safe unionist seat, South Belfast (and its Mid Down hinterland) has transformed over recent decades and now easily ranks among the region’s most socially, ethnically and religiously diverse. It includes some of Belfast’s and the city’s outskirts’ most affluent areas, as well as some of its most deprived.

Whereas in 2001, the overall unionist vote in constituency was almost 48% by 2019 it had dropped to 34.5%.

The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell became the first nationalist to win the seat in 2005, when a split unionist vote enabled the Ormeau Road-based GP to secure a 1,235 majority over his nearest rival, the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt.

Alasdair McDonnell’s approach 'is more akin to Genghis Khan than Mahatma Gandhi'
Former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell was the first nationalist MP for South Belfast

Mr McDonnell, who once told this newspaper that the seat was “borrowed” from unionists, was returned to Westminster on a further two occasions. However, in 2017, little over 18 months after losing the SDLP leadership, he was unseated by the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, a former special adviser contesting her first election having been co-opted into the Stormont assembly in September 2015.

Ms Little-Pengelly’s Westminster tenure was relatively short, lasting two-and-a-half years. She was undone by the SDLP’s Claire Hanna in 2019′s ‘Brexit election’, which saw Sinn Féin and the Greens stand aside in the constituency in a bid to ensure a pro-Remain candidate prevailed.

Ms Hanna secured a whopping 27,079 votes, giving her a majority of more than 15,000.

The 44-year-old incumbent is widely regarded as one of the north’s most effective politicians and as a result attracts votes from those who wouldn’t ordinarily support the SDLP. For the second successive Westminster election, Sinn Féin is not contesting the seat.

Ms Hanna’s defence of the seat is made a little more difficult by the inclusion of Green candidate Áine Groogan on the ballot but an endorsement for the SDLP candidate by former Green leader Clare Bailey will likely aid the sitting MP’s prospects.

Kate Nicholl of Alliance, who is one of her party’s two MLAs in the constituency, has a justifiable belief that she can poll strongly and arguably against a weaker candidate her chances of taking the seat would be much greater.

The DUP appears to have quietly conceded the seat, running the relatively low key Tracy Kelly, a councillor for the Botanic DEA since 2019. The TUV’s candidate is Dan Boucher, a former DUP director of policy and research who resigned in April over the party’s support for the so-called Donaldson Deal.

The Ulster Unionists’ candidate Michael Henderson has run in the two previous Westminster elections but has yet to poll more than 1,600 votes.

South Belfast and Mid Down
South Belfast and Mid Down