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SDLP candidate hoping for repeat of tactical voting in enlarged constituency

Claire Hanna (right), SDLP Westminster candidate for the constituency of South Belfast and Mid Down in Northern Ireland, speaking with Jimmy Wilkinson and his father Ian, while canvassing in Carryduff (Liam McBurney/PA)
Claire Hanna (right), SDLP Westminster candidate for the constituency of South Belfast and Mid Down in Northern Ireland, speaking with Jimmy Wilkinson and his father Ian, while canvassing in Carryduff (Liam McBurney/PA)

The SDLP’s Claire Hanna is hoping for a repeat of the tactical voting in Northern Ireland’s most diverse constituency which swept her to Westminster in 2019.

However, due to boundary changes, the Belfast South constituency she has represented for the past five years has been enlarged and renamed Belfast South and Mid Down.

While the last General Election was dominated by Brexit, rival candidates, including the DUP’s Tracy Kelly and Alliance’s Kate Nicholl, are expecting that a new political landscape and environment will lead to a much closer race in the July 4 poll.

Claire Hanna standing in a residential area of Carryduff holding her own election material
Claire Hanna hits the campaign trail in Carryduff (Liam McBurney/PA)

In 2019 Ms Hanna unseated the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly with a huge 15,401 majority after Sinn Fein and the Green Party did not run. While Sinn Fein will not contest the seat again, the Greens are in the running this time.

Another factor which has changed since 2019 is that the increased constituency now stretches well outside Belfast to include Saintfield, Drumbo and Moneyreagh.

However, as she hit the campaign trail, Ms Hanna was confident that the changed boundaries would not disadvantage her.

She said: “It is still more than 90% the same constituency, the core from Belfast city centre up to Carryduff, out to Finaghy and Forestside.

“It has brought in Saintfield, which I think is a really good fit. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the last few months and again it is a shared neighbourhood, people of all fits and none.”

Ms Hanna said she believes people vote differently in a Westminster poll than in an election for the Assembly or local council.

She added: “South Belfast has always been a multi-way marginal vote.

“That is part of the beauty of the constituency, it is a melting pot, loads of different political traditions and ideas.

“The last time that was the case as well and I think people rallied around me as the candidate maybe even if I wasn’t their first choice at Assembly election and I am hoping that will be the same again.

“I don’t think people are as deeply party tribal as some might have you believe.

“I think people know there are different elections that do different things and they feel able to vote for the person they feel has the best experience to do the job for them.”

The DUP's Tracy Kelly standing in a street holding her own campaign literature
Tracy Kelly, DUP Westminster candidate for the constituency of South Belfast and Mid Down (Liam McBurney/PA)

The DUP has gone for a new candidate in city councillor Tracy Kelly. She said she had been canvassing hard and believes that her work at grassroots level in the community would chime with voters.

Ms Kelly said the concerns expressed by voters on the doorsteps varied across the constituency, with issues such as anti-social behaviour and illegal dumping, social housing and immigration raised with her.

She said she also believes the boundary changes could help the DUP.

She added: “I am looking at it as a positive. We are bringing in more unionist voters. Those areas are traditionally unionist areas, I am hoping that will help me.

“We have been on the ground in those areas.”

Ms Kelly added: “I think as a councillor, I don’t have to introduce myself, I am already known in the constituency.

“I also have the advantage of working for the local MLA for the last eight years for the whole of South Belfast.

“Living in South Belfast, born and reared in South Belfast, working here for the last 20 years has given me the advantage of knowing quite a few people.

“I hope people can look at my track record of hard work. I am very reliable, I am on the ground, I know a lot of the issues, I live in the area.”

Kate Nicholl speaking to volunteers during a campaign session
Kate Nicholl (centre), Alliance Westminster candidate during canvassing in the constituency (Liam McBurney/PA)

The cross-community Alliance Party came third in the 2019 poll, but since then has performed strongly in the area in the Assembly and local government elections.

Their candidate, Zimbabwean-born former Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl, said voters on the doorsteps had been positive about the party’s record in the Stormont Assembly.

She said: “It doesn’t matter that it’s a Westminster election, people want to talk to their politicians about the issues they are facing.

“I think a lot of people know I have been working on childcare. They have been asking me what more I can do on this in Westminster. I have spoken about tax-free childcare.”

She said it would be a very different election from last time.

Ms Nicholl said: “When you think of 2019, it was just after Brexit. There was a DUP candidate who a number of people rallied around to get out of the race.

“I think we are just in a different place. I think what people really want are politicians who will be positive, who will be pro-active and who are going to sell Northern Ireland for the wonderful place that it is.

“We need our young people to have hope and to want to stay here.”

She added: “It is a new constituency, it is not an extension, it is a brand new constituency and I am really excited about it.”

Also running in Belfast South and Mid Down are Aine Groogan for the Green Party, Michael Henderson for the UUP and Dan Boucher for the TUV.