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'Kingmaker' facing toughest battle

Published 03/05/2015

Nigel Dodds could play a pivotal role in determining the make-up of a coalition government if there is a hung parliament
Nigel Dodds could play a pivotal role in determining the make-up of a coalition government if there is a hung parliament

The political 'kingmaker' with a potentially crucial role in determining who walks into Downing Street is facing one of his toughest election battles.

Nigel Dodds has been North Belfast MP for well over a decade but, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputy leader remains favourite to top the poll only after entering a unionist pact.

And, his closest political rival, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein who took 34% of the vote last time insists this will be their closest contest yet.

Mr Kelly said: "It is absolutely a two-horse race.

"I expect it to be a tight finish."

Mr Dodds is one of four candidates across Northern Ireland to have been jointly agreed by the DUP and their rival Ulster Unionists in a bid to maximise pro-Union representation at Westminster.

Other smaller unionist parties, such as the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), Ukip and Progressive Unionist Party, are also not running, effectively giving him a clearer run.

With the DUP expected to take eight to 10 seats, Mr Dodds, the party's Westminster leader, could play a pivotal role in determining the make-up of a coalition government if there is a hung parliament.

"This is a once in a life-time opportunity for Northern Ireland," he has said.

Although he has declined to be drawn on whether the DUP would prefer a Conservative or Labour-led coalition, scrapping the so-called bedroom tax, the abolition of air passenger duty and increased spending on health and education have been cited among their priorities.

Speaking to the party faithful at the DUP's manifesto launch last month, Mr Dodds said: "With the polls as they have been for months and the SNP having marginalised their influence it is very likely that DUP MPs will have a crucial role in the next Parliament.

"There is a real opportunity to get what we need to make life better for Northern Ireland's hard working people."

Situated on the shores of Belfast Lough, the constituency, which has a population of 102,531, takes in the affluent tree-lined avenues of the upper Antrim Road, as well as some of the city's best loved landmarks like Cavehill and Belfast Castle.

But, with 18 so-called peace walls and gates -- more than anywhere else in Northern Ireland - it also includes some of the most divided and deprived communities where s ectarian tensions between the Protestant loyalist and Catholic nationalists are high.

Nationalist Ardoyne has been hit by almost annual scenes of rioting following contentious Twelfth of July Orange Order parades while in nearby Woodvale, loyalists have erected a semi-permanent protest camp in opposition to a ruling barring Orangemen from a contested stretch of road.

Traditionally, North Belfast has been a safe unionist seat since Cecil Walker won it in 1983 but, demographics have changed and according to the 2011 Census, Catholics are now in the majority.

Professor Peter Shirlow, from Queen's University Belfast predicts a close finish between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

He said: "North Belfast is symbolically very important. Belfast is the jewel in the crown but, the city is no longer a Protestant majority.

"The last time it came down to 1,700 votes but that was with another unionist candidate, Fred Cobain, standing.

"Nigel Dodds' vote decreased by 6% and Gerry Kelly's vote increased by 5.5%.

"I expect Nigel Dodds to win, but by a margin of about 1,000/2,000 votes."

Mr Kelly, a former Maze prison escapee, and senior Sinn Fein negotiator said it would be a massive psychological boost if a republican could take the seat.

He said: "It would be a huge move forward for the psychology of North Belfast for the first time since 1885 having a nationalist MP.

"It would be a huge psychological move both for unionists and nationalists."

Mr Kelly claimed his party was gaining support in the well-to-do streets of the upper Antrim Road previously written-off as SDLP strongholds.

Mr Kelly added: "I have stood in four Westminster elections now, and this is the first election where I have seen momentum building around a central issue.

"And the central issue is the two-horse race."

He also said there was "disappointment" on some doorsteps that the SDLP rejected a proposal from Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness for a nationalist pact.

In line with Sinn Fein's abstentionist policy, Gerry Kelly would not take his seat at Westminster if elected MP.

Alban Maginness of the SDLP is also vying for votes.

He has been scathing of the unionists' decision to field agreed candidates in some constituencies and said he could not endorse what he branded "sectarian headcount".

The veteran politician, also a lawyer, rejects any notion that the 2015 election is simply a two-horse race.

He said: "That's ridiculous. I am in it to win and I believe I can.

"We are giving people a democratic choice and people want to see us. I do not care what the figures said the last time, people change their minds and there can be larger turnouts.

"It is a crucial election and unique for Northern Ireland. Parties from Northern Ireland can actually determine the make-up of the next government."

The SDLP would support Labour in the event of a hung parliament, Mr Maginness confirmed.

Other candidates standing for election in North Belfast are Independent Fra Hughes, Jason O'Neill from the Alliance Party and Gemma Weir from The Workers Party.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the DUP were indulging in "wishful thinking" if they thought they could be kingmakers in a hung Parliament.

Mr McGuinness told Sky News's Murnaghan programme: "Some of the parties in the north of Ireland in the course of this election, particularly the DUP, are involved in wishful thinking if they think they can in the aftermath of the election be kingmakers.

"I don't think that's going to be the case. My view is that the formation of the next government in Westminster will revolve around the Conservatives, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and the SNP, and of course the Scottish nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon are in a much more powerful position than any of the parties here."

He added: "I don't think there's anybody who believes for a moment that the DUP are going to be at the heart of the formation of the next government. I think that's wishful thinking on their part and obviously from their perspective a clever argument for them to make, particularly in their battle with the Ulster Unionist Party here in the north."

Mr McGuinness defended Sinn Fein's refusal to take up any Commons seats which it wins in an election which could otherwise see them as one of the parties holding the balance of power:

"We believe it is important to go to Westminster, as we do, to engage with the other parties, but we are not prepared to bestow any legitimacy on the British government's right to rule this part of Ireland."

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