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Naomi Long signals she’d relish chance to battle it out with Robinson for seat

By Noel McAdam

It could be Long v Robinson -the title decider. In effect, a trilogy of contests between Alliance leader Naomi Long and a DUP candidate called Robinson appears to be on the cards.

Mrs Long is set for another battle with the DUP in the finely balanced constituency of East Belfast. She has signalled she is willing to stand again for the party after seizing the seat from Peter Robinson seven years ago in 2010.

But her candidature would have to be approved by the party's executive, which a spokesman said was not a foregone conclusion.

Former leader David Ford warned, however, that rival parties would find it difficult to justify a pact to prevent Mrs Long from victory

"Both DUP and UUP representatives are talking about a pact 'to maximise the number of MPs who will attend and work for their constituents at Westminster'. Clearly there is already a pact on language," he said.

That argument may have some sway in a constituency like Fermanagh-South Tyrone, where the contest will be with an abstentionist candidate from Sinn Fein.

But they will need to change their language if they are going to justify a pact against Alliance in East Belfast, given Mrs Long's record of attending Westminster as well as unionist MPs, and working at least as hard as any of them.

A party spokesman added about Mrs Long: "She's willing to put her name forward but it's a democratic party, so it has to be okayed by the wider party before anything is official."

Mrs Long said: "I am willing to stand if the party wish me to stand but that is in the hands of others.

"I have put the option on the table. In really polarised Westminster elections, Alliance does better in proportional representation Assembly elections. Everyone focuses on East Belfast, but there is also a four-way split in South Belfast and there is a chance for Alliance to come through there very strongly."

Two years ago the DUP's Gavin Robinson won back the seat boosted by a pan-unionist pact - although Mrs Long increased her own vote by 4,000.

The odds seemed stacked in Mr Robinson's favour given the cross-party pact the DUP had engaged in prior to the election, which saw other unionist candidates stand aside to afford him a clear run at victory.

But in his victory speech he struck a wrong note in criticising his defeated opponent.

"I am delighted that the last five long years are over, that a new day has dawned in East Belfast," he said.

"When people were offered the choice as to whether they wished to go forward or back, they chose forward.

"They chose forward with somebody they could trust.. rather than back to a party that are only interested in offering us a future if we share their view.

"And when people were offered the choice to vote for progress and the union over backward abstention, they chose the progress."

A strong turnout of 63% - up 4% from 2010 - appeared to favour the cross-unionist vote, and Conservative candidate Neil Wilson also put in a respectable showing with 1,121 votes.

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