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East Belfast: Remain campaign backs Naomi Long in bid to oust DUP's Robinson

By Allan Preston

The election battle lines in the key Westminster constituency of East Belfast have been drawn over Brexit, after a pro-EU lobby group said it would back a bid to oust the DUP's Gavin Robinson.

Alliance leader Naomi Long has been supported by Open Britain, which said it has an "attack list" to unseat 20 pro-Brexit MPs.

East Belfast is the only seat in Northern Ireland the lobby group is targeting, as it aims to help Mrs Long take her seat back from the outgoing DUP MP Gavin Robinson, who backed Brexit.

Open Britain is not providing any funding for Mrs Long, one of 40 candidates it is backing, but aims to mobilise half a million volunteers opposed to Brexit across the UK.

The Brexit vote in East Belfast in 2016 closely split the constituency, with 21,198 voting to leave and 20,278 - just over a 1,000 less - voting to remain.

Neil Wilson, the Conservative candidate there in 2015, also managed the Vote Leave campaign in the area.

"East Belfast voted to leave the EU last June and handed a clear mandate to its MP to support the Brexit process," he said.

"Many people here will be angry that Open Britain have not seen fit to respect the result."

It remains unclear if the other pro-remain candidates will choose to give Mrs Long a free run at the seat she lost to Gavin Robinson in 2015.

A spokesperson from Open Britain said it was "proud to support" Mrs Long's campaign.

"She is a passionate pro-European and a staunch opponent of a destructive hard Brexit that would cost jobs in Northern Ireland," he said.

"We are asking our thousands of volunteers to go to East Belfast, along with dozens of other seats to help local candidates.

"We are not carrying out direct local campaigns and nor are we providing financial support to candidates."

Mrs Long said she was not aware of Open Britain's plans to support her in East Belfast beyond their endorsement.

She added: "The endorsement of Open Britain is welcome, reflecting Alliance's clear stance in opposition to a hard Brexit, in favour of special arrangements for Northern Ireland's unique circumstances and of the right of the public to endorse any deal via a second referendum."

She said Open Britain "have not approached the party with any offer of support, either financial or in kind, for any Alliance candidate".

The DUP were asked for a comment but have yet to respond.

In the 2015 Westminster election, Gavin Robinson polled slightly over 19,500 votes with Naomi Long talking just under 17,000. Other Pro-remain candidates from the Green Party, SDLP and Sinn Fein polled 2,008 votes between them.

The only other pro-Brexit candidate was for the Conservatives with 1,121 votes.

While the Tories have yet to announce any candidate in East Belfast, it is believed two names are in the frame - businessman Jeff Peel and Sheila Bodel, who stood there as an Assembly candidate in March.

Gavin Robinson won his seat from Mrs Long in 2015 after she herself ousted the former First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson in 2010 in a major political upset.

The DUP surprised many during the Brexit campaign last year when the party took out a wraparound front page advert costing almost £300,000 in the Metro London newspaper. It was later revealed that over £400,000 was donated to the DUP by a little known group known as the Constitutional Research Council.

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