N. Ireland GE2019 (4) E. Belfast and Alliance


This is the fourth post in the NI GE2019 series. The previous three are on North Belfast and the DUP, Sinn Féin and Foyle and the SDLP and South Belfast.

I visited Stormont in May 1968 on a Civics trip from my Dublin school to learn how NI governance operated and of course to have a chance to look around Belfast City centre. I saw my first ever colour television and was very impressed by the Belfast trolleybus system.

N. Ireland and Belfast looked very prosperous at the time in comparison to IE and Dublin. I had no inkling that the trolleybus system would be shut within a week and, more dramatically, that by the end of the year NI would be spiralling downwards towards the Troubles.

The dramatic period between October ’68 and the founding of the SDLP in July ’70 was covered in post (3) of the GE2019 series and is essential reading for those not familiar with the period. There was, of course, another party founded in 1970, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI or simply Alliance). The Alliance Party, in fact, pre-dates the SDLP by a couple of months, having been formed in April ’70.

In addition to facing turbulent politics, the NI economy was taking a downturn in the 1960’s. NI had an economy largely based around heavy industry, most iconically the Harland and Wolff (H&W) shipyard located in E. Belfast. This had a highly productive workforce which peaked at around 35,000 employees. (In comparison Nissan Sunderland, one of the largest plants currently in the UK only employs c.7,000 workers). The current largest private employer in NI is Moy Park (c. 5,000 staff), an agri-food business which is Brazilian-owned.

H&W will be used as a case study for the wider engineering economy. Engineering and high-tech jobs have a major multiplier effect and typically produce at least two more jobs for everyone directly employed.

Some Economic History

H&W is most famous for building the Titanic and indeed built many cruise liners, one of the last being SS Canberra, launched in 1960. The iconic H&W Samson and Goliath cranes still dominate the E. Belfast skyline today (Fig. 1).

Fig.1 H&W Samson and Goliath Cranes image from VisitBelfast

The heyday for H&W, however, came during and just after WWII. There was an insatiable demand for Royal Naval tonnage. Around 140 warships were built, including e.g., fifty Algerine Class Minesweepers and thirty-seven Flower-class Corvettes. A full list of ships built at H&W is available here and here.

Larger vessels included two Colossus Class Aircraft Carriers: Magnificent and Powerful, illustrated in Fig. 2. However, the largest warship built at H&W and one of the largest ever built for the Royal Navy was the 36,800-ton Audacious Class Eagle, the sister ship to the Ark Royal.

Fig 2. Colossus Class Magnificent (left) and Powerful under construction H&W 1944.

It was not just shipping. The Mark VII Churchill tank was designed and build at H&W. They also linked with aircraft manufactures Short Bros. to form Short and Harland. The first products of the new factory were 50 Bristol Bombays followed by 150 Handley Page Hereford bombers. Shorts is still in existence. It was owned by the Canadian firm Bombardier Inc. for many years and has now been sold to Spirit Aerosystems.

The H&W workforce having peaked in WWII remained high as demand for warships continued well into the 1950s. In the 1960’s, however, orders dried up and only five warships were built, the most significant being the county class destroyer HMS Kent in ’63 and HMS Fearless in ’65. The very last one and the only one built in the late ’60s was HMS Charybdis in ’68.

The yard became unprofitable. It became much cheaper to build ships elsewhere, particularly in Japan. In 1966, the management went to Stormont and pleaded for a subsidy because H&W did not have enough money to cover the next payday. This was the start of more than 30 years of government subsidies and decline. H&W still employed around 10k workers in the mid-’60s, but now has fewer than 100 employees and was narrowly saved from collapse at the end of September.

One of the tragedies of NI is that highly skilled, high productivity, manufacturing jobs have been replaced by low skilled jobs in services and retail. Productivity in NI is lower than it was in 2008, before the financial crash. It is not unique to NI, of course, it is a pattern largely replicated in many parts of the North and Midlands.

The Party

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

The Alliance Party (21 April 1970) has its origins in the New Ulster Movement, and its chief founders were Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper. It originally represented moderate and non-sectarian Unionism. Alliance, however, has always had pragmatic outlook and, over time, particularly in the 1990s, it moved towards neutrality on the Union and has come to represent wider liberal and non-sectarian concerns.

It opposes the consociational power-sharing mandated by the Good Friday Agreement as deepening the sectarian divide, and, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is designated as neither unionist nor Irish nationalist, but ‘Other’.

One of the big changes in NI over recent years is that ‘Others’ are becoming a far more significant political force. ‘Significant Others‘ also seem to now align far more in their views with the Nationalist community, rather than the Unionist community on wider topics. For example, President Trump gets a high approval rating from Unionists, but an equally abysmal rating from both Nationalists and ‘Others’.

In terms of more general policies, it is in the centre, with policies very similar to the Liberal Party. In the European Parliament, it sits with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

The leader of the party is Naomi Long, the first Alliance member to be elected as an MEP in May this year — a significant breakthrough for the ‘Others’ keen to see NI move on from green v orange politics.

NI uses PR (STV) for European Elections. She received 18.5% of the first preference votes. Sinn Féin with 22.17% and the DUP with 21.83% did a little better but Alliance is very “transfer-friendly” (under STV the voter ranks the candidates in descending order of preference) and Naomi ended up with the highest number of votes on 170,370. Diane Dodds (DUP) finished with 155,422 and Martina Anderon (SF) with 152,436.

Naomi Long was also the MP for Belfast East from 2010-15 but lost the seat to the current DUP MP Gavin Robinson. She is highly regarded and considered by many to be the most able politician in Northern Ireland.

The Constituency

Belfast East

Dominated by the giant Samson and Goliath cranes the constituency is socially mixed. There are large expanses of small Victorian terraced housing near Belfast City Centre and around the shipyard in Ballymacarrett. These areas have seen significant refurbishment, redevelopment, and gentrification. There is also a large amount of solidly lower-middle-class housing and some exclusive residential districts such as the much-mocked Cherryvalley. The small Catholic population is split between the largely working-class Short Strand enclave and minorities in the more middle-class parts of the seat.

Two of the four Belfast constituencies are closely balanced in terms of Nationalists and Unionists: Belfast South and North. West Belfast is overwhelmingly Nationalist and a rock-solid Sinn Féin seat, but East Belfast is not a Unionist mirror image. While W. Belfast is not only the most deprived constituency in NI but also in the entire UK, E. Belfast is, in NI terms, reasonably middle class and affluent.

Fig. 3 Belfast East Constituency

Given the 2017 results (Fig. 3), an Alliance victory seems unlikely, but there was an Alliance surge during the European Parliament elections. Should that be maintained there could well be an upset. Electoral Calculus (based on LucidTalk data), for example, is calling the seat for Alliance. It is also calling N. Down for Alliance. Remain United are also calling the seat for Alliance, predicted vote share: Alliance 46%, DUP 45% and UUP 9%.

Lucid Talk are currently running an MRP (multi-level regression & post-stratification) poll, so more up to date data will be available shortly and the final data will be used in the sixth and last post of the GE2019 NI series where overall conclusions will be drawn.

The bookies, however, have the DUP ahead. The latest Paddy Power odds (29th Nov) are 4/11 DUP and 15/8 Alliance. Either way it’s another seat to watch on election night.


  1. Richard Bond -

    How do people feel about Naomi Long standing for Westminster as well as being in the European Parliament? If Brexit is cancelled, what’s the constitutional position? If Stormont is reformed, does she sit there too?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Richard, it is a very good question. I think she can sit in Stormont and the EP at the same time. It is no longer possible to be a member of a national parliament and the EP. She would have to give up her EP seat if she were elected to Wm.

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