North Belfast: SDLP denies giving Sinn Fein's Finucane free run - I'm no paper candidate, says McAuley
The SDLP's candidate for North Belfast has denied that his selection effectively gives Sinn Fein a free run in the constituency.
Martin McAuley, a 26-year-old law graduate, is going head-to-head with DUP MP Nigel Dodds and Sinn Fein's John Finucane for the hotly-contested seat.
Local SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon isn't standing in the election as she is due to give birth to her second child in the coming days.
Ms Mallon last night said she was "delighted" to nominate Mr McAuley whom, she said, would make a strong pro-EU MP, fighting "against the Tories at every turn to protect all the people of north Belfast".
Although well known in media and political circles, as he is his party's press officer at Stormont, Mr McAuley isn't a household name in the constituency.
Nationalist commentator and former Sinn Fein election candidate Chris Donnelly last night described Mr McAuley's declaration, and that of Trillick councillor Mary Garrity in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as "low-profile and last minute" announcements by the SDLP.
Mr Donnelly tweeted that it was "a very clear signal that the SDLP view these as card candidacies". And he predicted that their Sinn Fein rivals in each constituency, John Finucane and Michelle Gildernew, would benefit.
However, Mr McAuley strongly denied that he was "a paper candidate". He told the Belfast Telegraph: "Over the next five weeks, I will be putting my all into the fight to win this seat.
"Nichola Mallon polled brilliantly in March's Assembly election, substantially increasing our vote in North Belfast. I hope to continue her great efforts. I wouldn't be wasting my time if it was a token battle."
The SDLP candidate said he was not "over-awed" by the fact that Sinn Fein was running lawyer John Finucane, whose father Pat was shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989. Mr Finucane believes he can make history by becoming the first nationalist MP for North Belfast.
Mr McAuley said: "I'm not in any way intimidated by the fact that Sinn Fein is standing a high-profile candidate like John Finucane.
"His candidacy was a surprise to me as I hadn't associated his name with Sinn Fein. He obviously joined the party recently."
Mr McAuley said that while he respected Mr Finucane personally, he believed that he was a better candidate than the lawyer.
"John is a good guy but this election is about challenging Brexit," he said. "North Belfast voted Remain but yet is represented at Westminster by Nigel Dodds who supports Theresa May's Brexiteers. The Sinn Fein alternative is John Finucane who, if elected, won't take a seat.
"People in the constituency need an MP who will turn up and make their voice heard against Brexit in the House of Commons. I'm the only credible candidate who will do that."
Mr McAuley, who is from Ardoyne, joined the SDLP while a law student at Queen's University Belfast six years ago.
He was previously a constituency adviser to former South Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt.
Last year, he put his name forward to be co-opted onto Belfast City Council to replace Nichola Mallon.
His attempt was unsuccessful with the party instead choosing prominent Ardoyne community worker, Paul McCusker.
The SDLP declared its Fermanagh and South Tyrone candidate yesterday as Councillor Mary Garrity, the current chair of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew is the bookies favourite to unseat UUP MP Tom Elliott in a constituency where nationalists have a narrow majority.
Sinn Fein is confident that Ms Gildernew can take the seat even with the SDLP running.
Announcing his party's 18 candidates yesterday, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "This election is about Brexit. Theresa May is seeking a mandate for a hard Brexit, a hard border and even harsher austerity.
"If she wants to reinforce the referendum result, then let's do that. Let's send the strongest team of pro-Europe MPs to Westminster to represent the will of our people and take on the Tories." Mr Eastwood said that Northern Ireland needed MPs to "take a stand against the Tory elite".
He added: "That means taking your seat and voting against them. The SDLP has the longest and the strongest pro-Europe record of any party on these islands."
In West Belfast, SDLP councillor Tim Attwood replaces his brother Alex as his party's Westminster candidate.
In Upper Bann, the party is fielding local councillor Declan McAlinden rather than Dolores Kelly, who won back her Assembly seat in March.
In East Londonderry, Councillor Stephanie Quigley replaces local MLA John Dallat as the candidate.
Sitting MPs Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast, Margaret Ritchie in South Down, and Mark Durkan in Foyle, are all standing again.
The SDLP's other candidates are: Margaret Anne McKillop in East Antrim; Seamas de Faoite in East Belfast; Pat Catney in Lagan Valley; Malachy Quinn in Mid-Ulster; Justin McNulty in Newry and Armagh; Declan O'Loan in North Antrim; Caoimhe McNeill in North Down; Roisin Lynch in South Antrim; Joe Boyle in Strangford; and Daniel McCrossan in West Tyrone.