Belfast South – sectarian politics alive and kicking

Northern Irish MPs must work together for the good of everyone & address the real concerns of the public instead of wrapping themselves in one flag or another.

Less than a week after SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie called for a new kind of politics, sectarian divisions seem to be alive and well. As the deadline for nominations approached, Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey withdrew his candidacy in South Belfast, calling for his supporters to back the nationalist SDLP candidate, Dr Alasdair McDonland, who faces a tough battle with the unionists. In 2005, McDonland secured a majority of just 3.9 per cent over his nearest rivals, the DUP.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said:

“This is a bold leadership initiative by Sinn Féin. It is about protecting and defending two nationalist seats.

Sinn Fein had hoped that in return for standing aside in South Belfast, the SDLP would withdraw its candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Fearghal McKinney, to shore up the Sinn Féin candidate, Michelle Gildernew. This is a deal which the SDLP have point-blank refused to make.

Reacting to the latest developments, Margaret Ritchie said:

Today’s announcement by Sinn Féin is nothing more than a cynical election stunt and sectarian gimmick motivated by selfish interests. The SDLP will continue to offer the politics of the future. Alasdair McDonnell is the best candidate in South Belfast, just as Fearghal McKinney is the best candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone. People should support them on that basis.”

Her refusal to go along with the deal led Gerry Adams to accuse Ritchie of having failed her first test of leadership. Whilst criticism from the unionist parties of both the SDLP and Sinn Féin was fierce, they too have sought to engage in the same sort of sectarian politics.

In the same Belfast South seat, the DUP’s candidate, Jimmy Spratt, put in a last minute plea to his Ulster Conservative and Unionist opponent, Paula Bradsahw, to step down in order to increase the chances of a unionist winning the constituency.

DUP leader and first minister Peter Robinson explained:

“In return for the UUP stepping aside for the larger unionist party in South Belfast the DUP was prepared to nominate Ms Bradshaw for the Assembly seat currently held by Jimmy Spratt.”

In rejecting the move, UUP MLA David McNarry called for Mr Spratt to step down to allow Ms Bradshaw to run as the unionist unity candidate. He said:

“Paula Bradshaw IS the Unionist Unity candidate in South Belfast. The DUP have no female candidate standing in this election, and having stepped aside in North Down in favour of a female independent unionist, I am calling on them to step aside in South Belfast to enable the Unionist community to rally behind Paula Bradshaw.”

Following the deal reached at Hillsborough Castle in February to devolve policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, hopes were high that the political system could move forward and concentrate on the bread and butter issues. The latest developments serve only to deprive the electorate of an opportunity to make their voice heard, by attempts between parties to stitch up deals behind the scenes. If Northern Ireland is to move forward, politicking such as this will need to come to an end.

Commenting on the developments, the Alliance Party’s candidate for South Belfast, Ann Lo, concluded:

“Every twist and turn in these tribal stitch-up stories is an insult to every person in Northern Ireland. They want politicians who will work together for the good of everyone and who will address the real concerns of the public instead of wrapping themselves in one flag or another.”

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