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Foyle: SF's McGuinness vs SDLP's Eastwood in the battle for nationalism


SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

SDLP candidate Gerard Diver canvassing in the Waterside

SDLP candidate Gerard Diver canvassing in the Waterside

Eamonn McCann and Raymond McCartney election posters

Eamonn McCann and Raymond McCartney election posters

Sinn Fein’s Maeve McLaughlin

Sinn Fein’s Maeve McLaughlin

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

The battle for Foyle will provide the SDLP's Colum Eastwood with the first big electoral test of his leadership as he goes up against one of republicanism's main players in the form of Martin McGuinness.

On the other side of Derry's Walls, unionism is under siege as splits and infighting threaten its only seat in the constituency - the one vacated by Baron Hay of Ballyore, better known as the former DUP Assembly Speaker William Hay.

A total of 16 candidates are contesting the six seats.

Foyle has returned three SDLP, two Sinn Fein and one DUP Member in every Stormont election since devolution was restored.

But there could be change in the Derry air.

Sinn Fein feels it can snatch a coveted third seat from the SDLP, while unionism could be left with no representation at all.

Throw a number of independents into the mix - such as People Before Profit's Eamonn McCann, who polled a respectable 3,916 votes in the 2011 election - and it makes the poll even more unpredictable. This time around Mr McGuinness will join Maeve McLaughlin and Raymond McCartney on the Sinn Fein ticket.

It is the second time the Deputy First Minister has put himself forward as an Assembly candidate in his home city. He was elected in the now defunct Londonderry constituency in 1982, but refused to take his seat.

Following devolution he has been elected an MLA for Mid Ulster since 1998.

The party believes the republican heavyweight could help secure that coveted third seat at the SDLP's expense.

The SDLP could be left red-faced if it cannot hold on in a constituency that former leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume made his party's political heartland.

Mr Eastwood has represented Foyle since 2011 along with colleagues Mark H Durkan and Pat Ramsey. Gerard Diver, a former councillor, was co-opted as an MLA to replace Mr Ramsey when he retired in January.

But in a city where unemployment is a major issue, some nationalist voters have not been impressed by Sinn Fein's backing for benefit and welfare reform.

It won't be plain sailing for the DUP in Foyle this time around either.

Since 1998 Mr Hay secured the votes of unionists, topping the poll in 2011 when more than 1,100 of his 1,600 vote surplus transferred to the SDLP, ensuring that its third seat was safe.

Traditionally, many unionists use their vote tactically and transfer to the SDLP in order to thwart Sinn Fein - just one more variable that might affect the outcome of this election.

But things have been rockier recently for Arlene Foster's party.

A very public spat between it and its councillor Maurice Devenney led to him quitting.

He is now standing as an independent in direct opposition to his former colleague Gary Middleton - a move that could split the vote and potentially cost unionism its only seat in the constituency.

Community worker and 2015 Westminster candidate Julie Kee, representing the Ulster Unionist Party, will be looking to the same voters as Mr Middleton and Mr Devenney.

The DUP has been keen to remind voters that in a constituency where only a quarter of the electorate is Protestant, more unionist candidates means a smaller chance of any of them getting to Stormont. In the unionist stronghold of Nelson Drive in the Waterside, Jonathan Hamilton told the Belfast Telegraph he hadn't made up his mind about who to vote for - or if he would even bother.

"I think it might be a waste of time, because what do we get from voting?" he said.

"For me the key issues are the level of homelessness, the state of the NHS and welfare reform.

"If I do vote I will give Maurice Devenney my number one, then I will vote SDLP, and then I will vote DUP."

Robert Donnell said he was happy to continue voting the way he always had.

He said: "I am voting DUP, but I will use the rest of my votes to vote for the Protestants.

"I don't think they do a lot for anybody, but I have always voted that way."

Caroline Olphert admitted she hadn't studied the manifestos of all of the candidates but was still content with her decision.

She said: "I am going to vote for the DUP because I have always voted for them - but I might give a vote to the SDLP as well to keep Sinn Fein out."

Across the Foyle Bridge in nationalist Shantallow it was issues rather than parties which were key to how people were going to vote.

Jason Johnston said he would be backing local GP Dr Anne McCloskey, a conservative, anti-Agreement republican who is standing as an independent.

"It's something different," said Mr Johnston.

"I don't think any of the Derry politicians are doing much for the town.

"The lack of jobs is the big one here.

"I have friends in their 40s who are out of work and can't get a job anywhere.

"Even the call centre jobs have gone - there is nothing."

Unemployment and welfare reform were the two main concerns for Patricia Moore, who said she was changing the way she traditionally voted because of these issues.

She explained: "I am most definitely going to vote because I was brought up being told how important it is to use your vote, but I think I am going to change who I vote for this time.

"I always voted Sinn Fein but this time I will probably give Colum Eastwood my support.

"The welfare cuts are scaring me.

"I worked all my life but I am on benefits now and I am not even 60 yet, and most likely won't get the pension until I am 67, so I am worried about my future."

Welfare reform was also the reason John Dunlop had decided to vote for SDLP.

Mr Dunlop said: "I am voting for Colum Eastwood. Normally I would vote for Sinn Fein but not this time.

"I think they are not standing beside the people on welfare cuts, which is going to have a big effect on a lot of people here in Derry.

"Then I will vote for McCann, the People Before Profit man."

The majority of people canvassed preferred to keep their voting intentions private, but a significant number said they will not go to any polling station on May 5.

Belfast Telegraph