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Naomi Long will need perfect storm to retain East Belfast seat in battle of popular Lord Mayors

In the first of our series of constituency profiles, Liam Clarke looks at the race in East Belfast

Published 10/04/2015

Alliance party annual conference at the La Mon house hotel in Castlereagh. Naomi Long
Alliance party annual conference at the La Mon house hotel in Castlereagh. Naomi Long

How long can your luck hold?

It took a perfect storm for Naomi Long of Alliance to take this seat from the DUP and it will take another perfect storm to let her keep it.

Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, a political forecaster from Nottingham Business School, put it like this.

"DUP are strong favourites - more than a four in five chance of winning.

"Alliance is in with a bit of a shout, but very definite underdogs."

Our polling partners at LucidTalk concur, though they make the DUP's Gavin Robinson marginally less of a favourite at 75% with the gap widening.

The perfect storm that brought Ms Long in in 2010 centred on the "Swish Family Robinson" expenses furore involving DUP leader Peter Robinson and his MP wife Iris.

It included the mental illness of Iris and her retirement from politics following the exposure of an affair with a younger man. Ms Long had also just completed a very successful year as Lord Mayor of Belfast.

The fight back came with the denunciation of Alliance for voting to reduce the number of days the Union flag flew at Belfast City Hall.

Ms Long hopes that is largely behind her.

"A party member was delivering one of my leaflets when he was approached by what he described as someone with a skinhead and tattoos brandishing the literature. He was left surprised when the man told him he was one of the people who had protested outside my office for several months regarding the Union flag, but he had now realised it was a mistake.The protesters had been 'led down the garden path' by those who whipped up tensions and he was planning on voting for me in May," Ms Long said.

She needs more people who feel like that.

Gavin Robinson, another recent and popular Lord Mayor, as well as an Orangeman, is young, able and clearly going places. Alliance have tried to dent his liberal credentials by pointing out that he appeared in support of Ruth Patterson, the hard line DUP councillor, when she was in court to apologise for placing a hate speech online.

He is protected by a pact which has resulted in the withdrawal of Chris McGimpsey, the UUP candidate.

He has carried out private polling which indicates that most UUP voters will now go to the DUP.

Many undecided voters are breaking for Alliance.

Outgoing MPs do generally pick up floating votes as the election approaches, but Mr Robinson is well in the lead.

Rivals reproach him for the performance of Stormont which even Peter Robinson described as dysfunctional.

Neil Wilson, the Tory candidate, points out that in the last election the UUP and Conservatives both supported Trevor Ringland, a Tory, who got over 7,000 votes. He reports "what we are getting on the doorsteps is that people are pleased a national party is standing and that many feel let down about the performance of Stormont."

Gavin Robinson can relax a little, but cannot become complacent.

All available information suggests he will win but the pundits were confounded last time in this 75% Protestant constituency. It is still one to watch.

Belfast Telegraph

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