South Belfast constituency profile: The DUP seat most under threat

By Gareth Gordon
BBC News NI political correspondent

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionStudents at Queen's University form part of the South Belfast electorate

Claire Hanna's future in the SDLP seemed in doubt just nine months ago.

Now, she's the party's best hope of winning back at least one of the three Westminster seats it lost in 2017.

In February, she resigned from the SDLP's assembly group over its formal link with Fianna Fáil.

Expediency - and the Christmas general election - appear to have brought a reconciliation, although her opposition to the new arrangement remains.

image captionClaire Hanna's hopes have been bolstered by the absence of Sinn Féin and Green Party candidates

At her campaign launch in the Lyric Theatre, she was announced as "the next MP for South Belfast".

It's the kind of things parties say. But, in this case, it can be said with some confidence.

Her party leader, Colum Eastwood, was there to lend support. Their differences over Fianna Fáil can wait. The common goal is now defeating Brexit.

But just as important was the presence of the Green Party leader, Claire Bailey, who isn't standing in the hope that her 2,241 votes will transfer to Claire Hanna and help defeat the sitting MP, Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP.

Sinn Féin is also standing aside - like the SDLP has done in North Belfast. The party pulled in 7,143 votes last time but there's no way of knowing how many of those will go to its traditional rivals now.

It's a nice position for Claire Hanna to be in. Just don't tell her it's a foregone conclusion.

image captionThe DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly said people wanted a single unionist candidate

"I don't believe that everybody is calling it for me," she said.

"I think a number of commentators will do that because I am somebody who's been embedded in the community here for many decades, and who has commented extensively on Brexit for over four years.

"I believe that people recognise those two things.

"I believe that a lot of people will put their trust in me to represent them and but there's absolutely not a single vote cast yet, and I don't think anybody should be complacent about this election or any other contest for that matter."

DUP's annoyance at UUP

It means Emma Little-Pengelly is probably the defending DUP MP whose seat is most in jeopardy.

She won by 1,996 votes in 2017 - the first time the DUP had taken the seat.

But considering South Belfast overwhelmingly opposed Brexit in the EU referendum - 68% voted to stay in the EU - she's been the number one target of Remainers ever since.

Hence the decision of the Greens and Sinn Féin to sit this one out.

But definitely in are the Ulster Unionists - to the DUP's great annoyance.

On a canvas of the working class loyalist Sandy Row area, with DUP leader Arlene Foster, Emma Little-Pengelly does not hide her feelings about the Ulster Unionist position.

image captionPaula Bradshaw of Alliance says centre-ground voters want to have a choice

"I think I'm disappointed but also very much surprised because as I've gone around the constituency over the last number of weeks, since the election has been called, it's been very, very clear from unionists across all different types and shades that they want one unionist candidate to stand.

"I'm certainly not hearing from anybody that they wanted another unionist candidate to stand and that's really from all people, it's not just DUP, but people from a number of different political shades of unionism."

Unionist choice

So why are the Ulster Unionists running when they stood aside for a sitting DUP MP in North Belfast?

According to Michael Henderson, a councillor from Carryduff who polled 1,527 votes in 2017, its all about offering unionists a choice.

"I personally voted to remain," he said.

"When the national vote came in, it was basically a democratic decision that we were going to leave, so the party got behind it. We were going to go with the democratic vote.

"Then the prime minister came out and basically said he's going to put a border down the Irish Sea. And that's something we can't support. So if we're given the choice - if it's going to be Boris's deal or stay in the European Union - we're staying in the European Union."

Biggest grievance

The candidate with maybe the biggest grievance in the field is Alliance's Paula Bradshaw.

Her vote has steadily risen to 7,946 in 2017. And the party polled very strongly in the local government elections thanks to the so-called Alliance surge.

She knows her job has been made much more difficult - but it's not impossible, she said.

"Every single Green Party voter that we have knocked the doors of have said they are voting for Alliance because we are their second party," she said, while canvassing a middle-class estate on the outskirts of south Belfast.

Does she believe them?

"They're shocked. They don't understand why they are not being given the choice."

She added that Green Party voters "can't understand why they're not standing" and that, while she's not "taking all the Green vote for granted", every Green voter they'd spoken to on the doorsteps had committed to giving Alliance their vote.

The other candidate is Chris McHugh of Aontú.

South Belfast is often called Northern Ireland's most diverse constituency.

Not this time. The choice has narrowed. Brexit vs Remain has changed everything.

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