Chris Donnelly: Fielding square peg candidates in round holes could prove costly

Former DUP leader Edwin Poots will seek election as an MLA in South Belfast. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former DUP leader Edwin Poots will seek election as an MLA in South Belfast. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire Former DUP leader Edwin Poots will seek election as an MLA in South Belfast. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

WHEN Sinn Féin’s surprise decision to move Alex Maskey from West Belfast to South Belfast was first announced 20 years ago, a certain commentator – not of this parish – wrote derisively about how people in the more affluent south of the city were unlikely to be impressed, opining that many had moved there with the specific purpose of getting away from people like the Sinn Féin politician.

Maskey was undeterred, and took the opportunity presented as the first Sinn Féin mayor of Belfast to challenge perceptions of him, completing a term in office marked by a relentless tone of positivity and inclusivity, being rewarded by becoming the party’s first MLA for the constituency in 2003.

The prominent republican, who had almost two decades previously been the first party councillor to step into the city hall, was helped at the time by a strategic policy team who met most mornings during his year as mayor to plot the day.

Successfully changing the narrative and perceptions around the party and Maskey, in what had always been infertile territory for Sinn Féin, required such a careful and considered approach.

Confirmation last week that Edwin Poots was being co-opted as DUP MLA into South Belfast, the most unEdwin of our constituencies, betrayed both the dysfunctional nature of relationships within the senior unionist party and a contempt for the horses for courses principle of electoral politics which states that a candidate should be ‘of’ a constituency, or at the very least in tune with its electorate to optimize the prospect for a successful electoral outcome.

Having been rejected by his party colleagues when bidding to run in South Down and ejected from his Lagan Valley home by his successor, the traditional DUP man Formerly (well for three weeks) Known As Leader will simply be relieved to have found a political abode, even if a clear majority of the BT9ers whose doors Team Poots will soon be rapping are unlikely to give this reluctant carpetbagger their vote.

The move may have solved the Edwin problem for Jeffrey Donaldson, but potentially at the cost of securing an advance for unionism in a constituency in which the loss of a second unionist seat in 2017 could have been temporary given that the DUP held the Westminster seat until 2019 through Emma Little-Pengelly.

The most successful political parties have always been able to master the horses for courses approach to electoral politics. In an Irish context, none did this better during the last century than Fianna Fáil.

Micheál Martin leads a party today that is but a shadow of its former self. Not that long ago in this nation’s development, Fianna Fáil was able to convince inner-city Dublin voters that it was on their side whilst also serving as the party of the Galway Races tent and of rural Ireland. Those days would appear to be long gone in an era when just seven of Dublin’s 45 TDs are Soldiers of Destiny.

The SDLP’s Joe Hendron managed the feat of ousting Gerry Adams for a term as West Belfast MP in the nineties because he was a popular and affable local GP (the tactical unionist votes only proved decisive because he had a substantial base in the Falls).

His successor as party representative in the constituency, Alex Attwood, may have been articulate and politically attuned but he never managed to seem at home in the constituency, with the tide going out for the party there on his watch.

Sinn Féin have never been particularly good at selecting candidates who chimed with local communities outside of their heartland areas.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s as their vote was surging elsewhere, their decision to parachute prominent veteran republicans from the militant tradition like Martin Meehan and Joe Cahill into South and North Antrim respectively meant they did not realise their full electoral potential.

It would take the party to shuffle the pack and bring Mitchel McLaughlin and Philip McGuigan out to finally convince voters to make the shift, which they did in sizeable numbers.

For this May’s Assembly election, the SDLP have chosen smartly with Conor Houston in Strangford and Pat Catney in Lagan Valley, hoping that the pair can claim a first nationalist seat in the former whilst holding the only one in the latter of what remain two overwhelmingly unionist constituencies.

As we move farther away from the conflict and peace process era, long-established voting patterns have loosened, with fraying at the edges of both green and orange.

The Belfast City Council that Alex Maskey first walked into in the 1980s reflected a sharp binary divide since blurred by the election of reds, environmental greens and the expanding yellow tinge of Alliance.

Getting the candidate right has never been more important. The groundswell of support for John Finucane, Claire Hanna and Colum Eastwood that propelled them to milestone victories in our last electoral outings here (Westminster 2019) was only possible because each had a strong and natural local connection fuelling their support.

Parties are increasingly finding that seats are likely to be harder won today and in the future. Fielding square peg candidates in round hole constituencies is a luxury few can afford and one that may prove costly.