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Ulster MPs could play key role

Candidates in Northern Ireland have had a hectic final day of campaigning ahead of an election that could hand them a role in the formation of the next government.

With the race to get into Downing Street potentially coming down to a handful of seats, the post-election intentions of the region's politicians has come in for heightened scrutiny.

In 2010 the Democratic Unionists secured eight of the 18 seats; Sinn Fein five; the SDLP three; with the Alliance Party and independent Sylvia Hermon both winning one.

With Sinn Fein insisting its century-old Westminster abstentionist policy will remain, the DUP claims it is best placed to exert influence in any hung parliament shake-down.

It has stated a willingness to back either Ed Miliband or David Cameron depending on what they offer Northern Ireland in return.

However, at times during the campaign the DUP saw its message obscured by a controversy that erupted over anti-gay comments made by its Stormont Health minister Jim Wells - remarks that ultimately prompted his resignation.

The SDLP is traditionally aligned with Labour, so would be expected to support Mr Miliband if requested.

While the Alliance Party has links with the Liberal Democrats, its sole MP Naomi Long sat on the opposition benches in the last parliament.

An electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists has boosted the DUP's chances of seeing deputy leader Nigel Dodds retain his North Belfast seat and Gavin Robinson recapture the East Belfast seat party leader Peter Robinson lost to Mrs Long in 2010.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell could face a challenge to hold onto his seat in South Belfast, with the DUP's Jonathan Bell and Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir both hoping to poll well.

Elsewhere the traditionally razor-edge battle for Fermanagh and South Tyrone will command attention.

Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew won by just four votes in 2010 - a margin reduced to a solitary ballot paper after review by the electoral courts. This time round she faces off against Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott, another of the DUP and UUP's four agreed candidates.

Upper Bann and South Antrim are also shaping up to be hard fought.

Outgoing DUP MP in Upper Bann, David Simpson, is facing a significant challenge from the UUP, with Sinn Fein also hoping to contend, while his party colleague in South Antrim, Willie McCrea, is also set for an arm wrestle with the Ulster Unionists to hold onto his seat.

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