Claire Hanna BBC Talkback 13 December 2019

Follow me

BBC Radio Ulster

William Crawley speaks to the SDLP’s Claire Hanna who was elected MP in Belfast South taking the seat from the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly by more than 15,000 votes. The Belfast Telegraph‘s Political Editor, Suzanne Breen, Columnist and former DUP Minister, Nelson McCausland, and Historian and Irish News columnist, Brian Feeney, are in studio with William and join this segment. (begins time stamp ~42:21)

Where’s the Audio?  This episode is not available for download.  To listen as you read along click here.  (begins time stamp ~42:21)

William:  Claire Hanna, the newly elected MP for South Belfast, certainly doesn’t need to take anything on the chin today. You must be delighted. Have you had any sleep yet?

Claire:   Not very much. About an hour.

William:  An hour! And you’ve just come back from a carol service I hear. (crosstalk)

Claire:  Yes, yes, absolutely! My seven year old’s carol service – those are the commitments you can’t break.

William:  Alright, tell us how you’re feeling in terms of the politics of what’s happened last night.


Claire Hanna
Photo: The Irish Examiner

I think the wider politics – I’m disappointed by. I’m worried, in fact, by the Conservatives having such a majority. I have to confess I haven’t kept abreast of all the different results yet; I’ll sit down and absorb them later on but I think it is concerning. I don’t think that Boris Johnson has good intentions towards public services. We still think that the EU (European Union) hold the cards in terms of the Brexit and the future relationship but any concessions that might have been given and any leverage that Northern Ireland might have had is now demonstrably gone…

William:  …And of course during your campaign you were saying, you know: Vote for Pro-Remain candidates…

Claire:  …vote for pro-…

William:   …Go in there and fight for Remain and then Boris Johnson comes through with this whopping majority, landslide victory, and you’re already neutralised.

Claire:  And we said very clearly we will fight for the bottom line as maximum access to the EU and there are very many fences to jump. And we know that even Boris Johnson doesn’t really have a clue what Brexit will look like as it pertains to Northern Ireland so that it up for grabs and the scope of how we relate is up for grabs.

William:  What do you think of Leo Varadkar’s response to the Tory landslide? He said he was relieved and the European Union is relieved because now there’s clarity and we can get Brexit done!

Claire:  I missed that but I can, I can, this is the – I think nobody has enjoyed this stalemate. Nobody has enjoyed the stalled investment. Nobody has enjoyed the uncertainty of not knowing where we’re going so I suppose in some ways some people think ‘better the devil’ you know, I can find no enthusiasm for it. But in terms of the local results I’m very pleased with them; I think the cooperation between parties has really borne fruit – and I think it was a good day at the office for those who were brave enough to do so and I’m glad that there will be – there are three more Remain voices in Parliament. I’m glad to see John Finucane elected as well and in terms of my result and Colum Eastwood’s result I’m obviously delighted with those – they were on a scale that we really didn’t anticipate.

William:  And history made in that for the first time in this history of this state, Northern Ireland, we have a majority of Nationalist MPs returned to Westminster.

Claire:  Do you know? I mean just, everyone will say this, I’ve knocked literally thousands of doors – this, to me, was a post-sectarian election. This wasn’t about Unionism or Nationalism or ‘other’ and I know certainly my own vote it demonstrably did not come just from Nationalists or ‘other’. I mean the figures are very, very clear and the tally is very, very clear – I got votes from every single neighbourhood, every single box, in South Belfast so I…

William:  …It’s just a fact. It’s just a fact that we have a majority of Nationalists now.

Claire:  But I don’t think that that’s the story of the election. I think the story of the election…

William:  …But it is one of the stories of the election…

Claire:  …Sure. But it’s not the story of the election and I think that people wanted to vote for things that were in their interest, the things that commonly affect all of us and they wanted to vote for things…

William:  …Well, you know because people say that there will be people who want to vote for a united Ireland because it might be the way to remain, to stay, within the European Union. These things are linked, aren’t they?

Claire:  Oh, absolutely!

William:  …These things are linked. So a majority of Nationalists MPs, in the minds of some people anyway, will be a very significant moment.

Claire:  Absolutely, but of the twenty-seven thousand people who voted for me some will very, very strongly think that’s the result and some will not so I don’t think that everybody – I think we’ve spent too may years just putting votes…

William:  …and I’ve met some liberal Unionists who voted for you and they weren’t voting as Nationalists…

Claire:  …putting votes into those two piles.

William:  I understand that. Nelson?


Nelson McCausland
Photo: The Belfast Telegraph

I’m just interested in something that we touched on and then moved away from very quickly but really relates to the Nationalist community – there are a number of Nationalists here and I’ve yet to hear their answer to it: There was the Sinn Féin gain in Belfast. There was the obvious Sinn Féin massive loss in Foyle but overall there was a drop in the Sinn Féin vote which was significant.

Irish Political Maps

William:  And in the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) vote.

Nelson:  And, yes – we talked at length. That’s why, if we could go back and just talk about the Sinn Féin one because it hasn’t really been touched on. And it would be interesting to hear from Nationalists why there was that drop in the Sinn Féin vote – their perspective on that?

William:  I think we have Conor Murphy coming on the programme after one – we’ll definitely take that up with him. Suzanne?


Suzanne Breen

I think a lot of it is down to the calibre of the candidate. John Finucane in North Belfast was a very, very strong candidate. He was professional, he was polished – he wasn’t a robot either. I was out with him – I have to say I was very impressed with how he handled people, with how he handled the issues and the problems he faced during the campaign whereas the same cannot be said of Elisha McCallion. I mean the number of commentators, journalists, just ordinary people you talk to – she’s a very much a second-rate Sinn Féin candidate. She is not MP material and I think we saw that out through the campaign. I mean, for Sinn Féin in Doire to be reduced to under ten thousand votes – that is really, really something. I thought Colum Eastwood would win but I didn’t think he would have a sixteen-seventeen thousand majority. This is very embarrassing for Sinn Féin.

William:  Brian?

Brian:   That’s quite correct. I mean I agree with that. The other, you know…

William:  …I’m certain Elisha McCallion would disagree fundamentally that she’s a second-rate politician. She’s been in the seat for two years…

Brian:  …we can do better than that if we want to go into detail. There’s a couple of other points…

William:  …I’m conscious she’s not here and Sinn Féin’s not here.

Brian:  …and one of them was that Sinn Féin got hit on the doorstep a lot about abstention – from Nationalists!…

William:  …Yes…


Brian Feeney
Photo: The O’Brien Press LTD

…on the doorstep and Colum Eastwood made a very strong point about the fact that he was going to be in Westminster, he was going to be making the case and so on. There was also a lot of annoyance about the health crisis, the fact that there was no Assembly, that there hadn’t been one for three years and people were criticised on the doorstep for that as well and that did affect Sinn Féin candidates across The North not just in those constituencies, like Foyle and South Belfast, but right across The North.

William:   Beyond that question, can I ask Claire about what this election could mean for Stormont? Because some people are saying: Well the DUP’s had a bad night, a bruising night, and as Nelson’s pointed out Sinn Féin’s vote share has gone down even though they had that success with John Finucane and even though they’re sending back seven MPs but their vote share is down. It wasn’t, in that sense, a great night for Sinn Féin. And that may mean, according to one analysis, that Sinn Féin and the DUP, both of them, might not want to go to the polls in a Stormont Assembly election. They might be more minded to get their heads together and do a deal.

Claire:   I think maybe we realise we only have each other. You know, whatever our long-terms aspirations are we’re all stuck here…

William:  …I feel a song coming on…

Claire:  …and we have to make it work. And I know even having canvassed intensively and extensively in May the mood has so dramatically shifted, people are genuinely anxious about the lack of the Assembly – I think everybody knows it wasn’t perfect – but that move, even in six months, to, you know: Call the whole thing off! to: My God! We need the protection of this! And we particularly need the protection in the context of a conservative government and if those of us in the centre have been hearing that I’m sure all parties have as well. I think the dynamic that the DUP aren’t the Big Man on Campus in London any more in terms of the relationship with the Conservatives helps as well but I think ultimately people realise there’s no alternative to partnership and compromise.

William:  And just finally on this: Obviously, you’re not the only SDLP MP – Colum Eastwood in Foyle will be an MP – if we do get a return to Stormont problems, aren’t there, for having an SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) leader in Westminster?

Claire:  Look, I don’t think so at the moment. We know that the two fronts are very much linked. I have no doubt that Colum will be present and engaged in the talks…

William:  …the talks, yeah…

Claire:  …and will be able to manage both works very well with Deputy Nichola Mallon…

William:  …But if you get it back can you have a party leader in a devolved Assembly in Westminster?

Claire:  Yes, I think we can. We’ll jump those fences when we come to them. I think at the moment the project in terms of limiting the damage of the DUP’s Brexit misadventures are going to be very, very linked between Stormont and Westminster.

William:  And I take it that means it’s a nice problem to have.

Claire:  It’s a nice problem to have. I don’t think Colum Eastwood with such a stunning personal victory is going to be stressing out about it today nor should he.

William:  Alright. Claire, thank you very much and congratulations on your election! (ends time stamp ~ 51:06)