Front runners in race for North Belfast ‘confident’ ahead of General Election

By Rebecca Black, PA

The DUP and Sinn Fein candidates expected to be involved in a close race for North Belfast have both expressed confidence days ahead of the vote.

Nigel Dodds, who has held the seat for almost two decades, is expected to come under pressure from John Finucane on Thursday.

The race in the constituency has narrowed to just three candidates, including Nuala McAllister from the cross-community Alliance Party, following electoral pacts.

DUP leader Arlene Foster (right) along with the party’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds and candidate for South Belfast Emma Little-Pengelly (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Finucane was just over 2,000 votes behind Nigel Dodds at the last general election in 2017.

This year, the dynamics have changed with the SDLP and Green Party stepping aside in support of Mr Finucane as a pro-Remain candidate.

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice have stood aside for Mr Dodds.

North Belfast, a deeply divided constituency which is home to many of the region’s peace walls, was evenly split in the 2016 Brexit referendum with 50.4% voting to Remain and 49.6% voting to Leave.

Interface gates at a peace wall in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Dodds told the PA news agency that he believes the pro-Remain pact, which is also in operation in South Belfast, is a nationalist effort to remove unionist MPs from the city.

He said education, health and the Assembly are the biggest issues on the doorsteps and queried why the SDLP is running against Sinn Fein in Fermanagh South Tyrone instead of stepping aside there too, adding: “the whole thing is ludicrous”.

Sinn Fein identified Mr Dodds, who they have labelled an “architect of Brexit” as one of their key targets this election.

Mr Finucane said he is feeling confident.

Sinn Fein’s John Finucane canvassing in north Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

“It’s going to be a very tight election but I think the numbers are there,” he said.

“The remain voice is there from 2016 and people are even more angered about Brexit now.

“When I see our own supporters very well motivated and I see those who would traditionally support other political parties be motivated to bring about change, that makes me very confident.”

However, the DUP effort to hold North Belfast has been substantial with up to five teams of canvassers knocking doors across the constituency on Saturday.

“People realise how important the election is for the country as well as North Belfast, but we don’t take anything for granted, it is going to be close,” said Mr Dodds, adding that he believes he’ll attracts votes from across the community for his pro-life stance.

Mr Dodds said a Sinn Fein MP who will not sit in the House of Commons would be a “travesty”.

“It’s important that North Belfast is represented in the corridors of power, to leave a seat like North Belfast with all its challenges and difficulties without someone who can deliver, who will boycott, would be a travesty,” he added.

The race in the constituency has turned nasty at times with posters targeting Mr Finucane and his family, election posters being stolen, while the DUP and some victims of terrorism have expressed outrage over Shankill bomber Sean Kelly’s participation in the Sinn Fein election team.

Mr Finucane also found himself hitting the front pages with revelations he had accepted a community resolution notice for indecent behaviour for urinating in the street in June.

He described some of the negativity as “difficult”, but added: “There is a mental health crisis, there is a suicide crisis and there is a housing crisis here. I want to get stuck into those problems and issues for everybody in the community. That’s what my focus is on.”

Alliance candidate Nuala McAllister said she is standing in North Belfast to offer voters an alternative to the DUP and Sinn Fein. (Liam McBurney/PA)

Meanwhile, Ms McAllister says many voters are turned off by the pacts.

“I am going to give people the option to vote Alliance because if you take away that choice, you disenfranchise every single person who believes in what we stand for,” she said.

“I cannot in good conscience say to anyone that they can vote for the DUP or Sinn Fein, I don’t believe it is the right course of action for anywhere in Northern Ireland.

“I have had people contact me to say they will be voting Alliance and these are people from both communities in North Belfast.”