Hanna and McDonnell to battle for SDLP's South Belfast nomination
High-profile SDLP MLA Claire Hanna and former MP Alasdair McDonnell are set to go head-to-head tonight in a battle for the party's South Belfast Westminster nomination.
SDLP sources said Ms Hanna was the clear favourite to secure the nomination at a selection meeting in the constituency.
The party believes that it can win back the seat it lost to the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly two years ago.
It will fight the election on a strongly anti-Brexit ticket.
South Belfast recorded a 70% Remain vote, but the SDLP will need to win over some Green and Alliance voters if it is to retake the seat.
Ms Hanna was elected to the Assembly in 2015. She resigned the SDLP whip in February following the party's link-up with Fianna Fail.
She also stepped down as its Brexit spokesperson but has continued to be a party member.
She canvassed for its candidates in May's council poll and for SDLP leader Colum Eastwood in the EU election.
Both Ms Hanna and Dr McDonnell declined to comment about tonight's showdown selection meeting.
Former GP Dr McDonnell lost the seat to Ms Little-Pengelly by 2,000 votes in the 2017 election, but he told the Belfast Telegraph last month that he was considering a political comeback.
He branded the DUP MP, who has been involved in disputes over UVF flags at Cantrell Close and bonfires since her election, as being "disastrous" for South Belfast.
"There are many people in the constituency, including some from a unionist background, who are deeply disappointed in how she has performed since she was elected," he said.
"Individuals both inside and outside the party have suggested to me that I should consider standing in the next election, so I have expressed my interest to the party."
Dr McDonnell held the South Belfast seat for 12 years, but Ms Little-Pengelly increased the DUP vote significantly to triumph for her party in 2017.
The former SDLP MP accused her of letting down her constituents. "Her party is pursuing an aggressive no-deal Brexit agenda," he said.
"The people of South Belfast are very aware of the danger that poses to the economy, agriculture and the Good Friday Agreement, and they're angry about it."
Dr McDonnell won the seat in 2005 from the Ulster Unionists. He retained it in the 2010 general election, when Sinn Fein did not field a candidate.
In the 2015 election, Sinn Fein ran Mairtin O Muilleoir, but the SDLP MP managed to hold the seat on just a 25% vote share, with 1,000 votes separating him from the DUP's Jonathan Bell. However, the DUP was victorious two years later, securing a 30% vote to the SDLP's 26%.
With Alliance on 18%, Sinn Fein on 16%, and the Greens on 5% in the 2017 Westminster poll, the SDLP will need votes from those parties' supporters if it is to win.
Alliance candidate Paula Bradshaw will strongly challenge the SDLP claim to be the only viable alternative to Ms Little-Pengelly.
The Greens' decision in the constituency will be key. In 2017 the party said the SDLP's choice of Dr McDonnell as a South Belfast candidate "effectively put to an end any chance of an agreed candidate". It cited his staunch anti-abortion position.
However, the Greens may be more amenable to a Claire Hanna candidacy.
DUP sources acknowledge that South Belfast will be one of the key battlegrounds in the next election but believe that Ms Little-Pengelly can retain her seat.