If you haven’t guessed by the number of politicians’ faces spying down on you at the front of the Student’s Union at QUB, it’s election season! Yes, from 7am on Thursday morning, the UK electorate will have their say in who forms the next government at Westminster.
If I were a betting woman, and willing to place money on the most recent opinion polls, it’s looking like there’ll be a hung parliament. It’s been widely reported by the mainstream media that parties from Northern Ireland could well be kingmakers in this process, with particular focus placed on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) being the Tory’s Knights’ in shining armour (but that’s an article for another day…)
We at Queen’s are possibly in one of the most exciting constituencies during this election period. There are new faces on the block from a range of different parties and, as a result, it’s predicted that the Nationalist and Unionist votes in the area will be further split. Hence, the current incumbent MP, Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Leader of the SDLP) may well have a tough fight on his hands. Yet, as students who reside in this area for the majority of the year but are unlikely to vote in the Belfast South Constituency, who will we be represented by and what do they think are the main issues impacting upon our lives? We at The Scoop have been on somewhat of a politician-hunt as part of our Westminster coverage, to find out what each South Belfast candidate is offering the constituency and the student body.
First up, we have Rodney McCune of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). We met in a small cafe near Belfast City Hall where he was accompanied by his two year old son Charlie. I chatted with Mr McCune about his campaign in South Belfast while Charlie enjoyed a buttered croissant.
Mr McCune told me that he believes there is “an awful lot” of talk about East and West Belfast, but very little in terms of “the South of the City”. He said that South Belfast is “the area of Northern Ireland which is probably more reflective of a modern British city than any other; and not just in terms of the student population, but value in the arts and a level of diversity which isn’t as prevalent elsewhere in Northern Ireland.”
If elected, Mr McCune hopes to introduce a ‘Better Belfast’ strategy based on structures already in place across many Northern European cities. He hopes to oversee the implementation of “pop up parks, better use of green space and a less cluttered city with better planning…there are so many aspects to maximising the potential of this city which I don’t think we’ve done yet”.
I thought this proposal sounded vaguely similar to something I’d heard from a recent Sinn Fein Lord Mayor who sought to create a New Belfast, Mairtin O’Muilleoir. Interestingly, he is also an MP candidate in South Belfast. I asked Mr McCune how his message differs, and whether or not his can override that of this rival. Mr McCune told me, “theres more substance in my proposals and I’m quite clear on that. I mean I’ve looked very closely at a lot of other cities; [O’Muilleoir’s] focus is on Northern American, which I don’t think is a model for where Northern Ireland or Belfast should be going. I think it’s Northern Europe”. McCune continued, “Yes he makes the right noises on twitter, but I haven’t seen anything of substance to back up the suggestion that he really has this idea and vision which he talks about”.
With the DUP and UUP making electoral pacts in 4 out of 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland, I asked Mr McCune why South Belfast had been left out of the loop. The UUP had held the South Belfast seat from 1982 until 2005, when the incumbent UUP MP Reverend Martin Smyth retired. Dr Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP then won the seat, and has held the position for the last 10 years. With this electoral history in mind, one might think it would make sense to form a unionist pact in this area. Mr McCune skirted around the issue stating that he had not been involved in any such talks, but asserted “that it’s still a very winnable seat for us even in the absence of an agreement with another party”.
We quickly moved onto the issue of students. I asked Mr McCune what he felt were the three most important issues impact the lives of students at the moment, and how he felt he would be best suited to address these issues if elected. Mr McCune listed the following:
1. Cost of Education
“The cost of education is currently prohibitive. The cost of both the courses themselves and housing are big issues….students who are in rented accommodation need to have better protection. I know that the ‘deposit for protection scheme’ which has been introduced in England and Wales has been a success and we’ve had a version of something here, but I would certainly be looking to assist students with that.”
“I know that burglary in fact in South Belfast is a big problem and it affects the student population as much as anyone else. A lot of that comes from drug abuse. I know that from having worked as a criminal barrister for twelve years, so therefore we need to tackle what would tend to be usually heroin. And there are heroin issues, and sorting that would have a positive impact on acquisitive crime.”
“We need to ensure that we’re not qualifying 10,000 teachers a year for 1,000 jobs because there’s a cost to the taxpayer in doing that, and those people invariably leave because they have to, and that needs to be better measured up….it’s maybe not a concern for students precisely at this point, but it’s still linked in the same way….What are we up-skilling people for? And are we going to present them with those opportunities?…I want people to realise their potential here.”
I finally asked Mr McCune how he felt he would fare in terms of numbers at the polls. He said he’s confident he’ll beat the party’s 2010 South Belfast figures (Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force = 5,910 votes), which he believes will put him in with a good chance of winning the seat depending on overall turnout. However he did predict that it may well be that “South Belfast is the seat won with the least number of votes anywhere in Northern Ireland”.
And with that, Charlie finished his breakfast, and was ready for full day of campaigning with his dad.
If you would like to hear Tori’s interview with Mr McCune in full, click the following link.
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