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Flag issue may yet be costly to Alliance in bitter East Belfast election fight

By Liam Clarke

Last year it was Anna Lo who was the darling of the Alliance conference. This year the focus had moved to another lady, Naomi Long.

She is popular, she is impassioned and, as she put it herself, the most important factor is that "East Belfast, our only egg, is in my basket".

Barring miracles, East Belfast is their only chance of a seat at Westminster. Beyond the influence, it carries allowances which the party has build into its spending plans since 2010. Alliance is also likely to lose one of its two ministries if the Stormont House Agreement is implemented so if it loses East Belfast too it will suddenly become much less worth listening to by the governments and other parties.

There was a sense at the conference that she might just make it. Jude Whyte, the victims campaigner who spoke on a discussion panel, offered to take up bets that she would double her 1,533 vote majority.

But, in a moving speech about the need for forgiveness, he limited the stake to the £1. The DUP's Gavin Robinson is still the favourite by a short margin and in the 2011 Assembly elections the DUP outpolled Alliance by 44% to 26.3%.

Last year Anna Lo, the Alliance Euro candidate, was in the news for saying she would prefer a united Ireland in the long term. Alliance has now embraced this idea of being neither unionist nor nationalist but a distinct force in politics. We will know soon if the voters are looking for that.

This year Ms Long is taking the flak from the flags protests. Alliance is not walking away from its vote to limit the flying of the Union flag on Belfast City Hall and there was a general feeling at conference that support had picked up again. Ms Long told the story of one man who had protested at her office over her stance on flags but recently came back to apologise for his treatment of her.

That is an anecdote and it is impossible to know if that sentiment is widespread. This promises to be a very bitter election - there is a lot riding on it.

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