Northern Ireland

General Election 2017: Candidates ready for South Belfast bunfight

Cakes in South Belfast
Image caption Which South Belfast candidate will be feeling sweet on 9 June?

Whether you're on Lisburn Road, Ormeau Road or Botanic Avenue, South Belfast isn't short of bakeries and patisseries where you can have your cake and eat it.

It may be entirely coincidental with the constituency's burgeoning café culture, but recent electoral contests here have seen the vote cut into a series of fairly even slices.

Two years ago, the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell held South Belfast for the third time, despite receiving less than a quarter of the overall vote.

His victory in a first-past-the-post election with just 24.5% of the vote was a UK record.

Dr McDonnell told me the general election contest in South Belfast is "very tight" but he remained "quietly confident" he can get a fourth term.

Sorry, your browser cannot display this content.

Image caption In 2015, the SDLP got the biggest slice of the votes

This despite his only 906-strong majority making South Belfast the 29th most marginal seat in the UK.

He described himself as the "best anti-Brexit candidate" who has been "fighting the European cause since long before the (2016) referendum".

He regards Brexit as very bad for Northern Ireland and thinks the battle in South Belfast is shaping up as a two-horse race between him and the Brexit-backing DUP - Dr McDonnell can't see any other parties closing the gap on these two front runners.

Image caption SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell said he is "quietly confident" of retaining his seat

In 2015, the DUP fielded Jonathan Bell, the former minister who played a key role in the Renewable Heat Incentive controversy that led to the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing executive.

This time the party has selected barrister and former junior minister Emma Little-Pengelly. In March, Mrs Little-Pengelly suffered a personal defeat when her running mate Christopher Stalford became the only DUP candidate to get re-elected as a South Belfast MLA.

Despite that reverse, the DUP's combined party vote at just under 21% put them ahead of the SDLP, which in March got just over 19%.

Image caption Emma Little-Pengelly said South Belfast is one of "the most interesting constituencies in the UK"

So, Emma Little-Pengelly believes there is "a strong chance of gaining the seat".

She explained her failure at the assembly election in the context of the DUP's two candidate strategy, and brushed aside the argument that Brexit will hamper her chances in this pro-Remain seat.

Instead, Mrs Little-Pengelly encouraged "people right across the spectrum to come out and back me".

She described South Belfast as "one to watch" and "one of the most interesting constituencies across the UK" because it has four parties each attracting more than 17% of the vote.

Image caption South Belfast voted overwhelmingly to Remain - will this affect the outcome in the general election?

Whilst the general and assembly election cakes may have been evenly sliced, it was a different story in the 2016 EU referendum when Remain took a big slab - nearly 70% - of the South Belfast vote.

That prompted discussions about an anti-Brexit pact. However, those talks failed at an early stage after the SDLP rejected the Green Party's argument that their MLA Clare Bailey would be best placed as a unity candidate.

The pro-Remain Alliance Party also made it clear it wouldn't join any pacts, and the party's candidate Paula Bradshaw insisted she can clinch victory on her own terms.

Ms Bradshaw said that alongside unionists and nationalists, South Belfast plays host to an "ever-increasing progressive centre ground".

Image caption Paula Bradshaw hopes to benefit from South Belfast's "ever-increasingly progressive centre ground"

"We have an opportunity in this election," she told me, "for people to vote for the first cross-community MP in South Belfast. It's such a diverse, mixed constituency now that whenever I am explaining that to people on the doors they are responding very positively."

Former Belfast mayor and finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is no stranger to the constituency's café culture. He pointed out to me where you can get Turkish coffee, Syrian coffee or "good old-fashioned Irish coffee".

The Sinn Féin MLA said the race in Belfast is "open" and pointed out that he has previously topped the poll in assembly elections. He claimed he is "the only progressive candidate who can win".

Image caption Máirtín Ó Muilleoir hopes his morning coffee on 9 June comes with an election win

He said he will garner the vote of a "rainbow coalition" and brushed aside my questions about Sinn Féin's absence from a potential hung parliament as an "Alice in Wonderland story".

Even without an anti-Brexit pact, the Greens will still hope their local MLA Clare Bailey puts up a strong showing.

The Ulster Unionists - who are fielding Michael Henderson - retain warm memories of the days when their old MP, Reverend Martin Smyth, always got the biggest slice of the vote.

With the Conservative Clare Salier also on the ballot paper, there are plenty of ingredients in the South Belfast mix.

Despite all the candidates' professed confidence, we won't know whose name will be written in icing on top of the big election cake in South Belfast until the early hours of 9 June.