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Election 2015: Opening salvos fired as race for Westminster race hots up

By Noel McAdam

The opening salvos in Northern Ireland's General Election battle have been fired as the campaign officially gets under way.

With 37 days to go to polling, all parties face the task of persuading undecided voters and stretching to win support beyond their traditional bases.

Alliance were first out of the traps with an event to launch their 18 candidates, while admitting their best prospect of a Westminster seat is Naomi Long holding onto East Belfast.

The prospect of a second seat is still at least another election away and Alliance has its sights on both South Belfast and North Down after independent Lady Sylvia Hermon stands down.

Alliance leader David Ford also dismissed speculation that failing to retain the East Belfast seat could put a question mark over his leadership. Instead, he argued every vote for an Alliance candidate would put the other parties "on notice" that society in Northern Ireland is changing.

Meanwhile, the SDLP firmly ruled out supporting the Conservative Party in a hung Parliament scenario after the May 7 election.

Leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell moved to quash any uncertainty that his party's MPs could back the Tories in post-poll efforts to form a Government.

It came after the South Belfast candidate appeared to leave room for negotiations with David Cameron open by failing to fully endorse Labour boss Ed Miliband as the better leader.

Dr McDonnell argued the SDLP is the only Northern Ireland party which can claim it has not supported the Conservatives.

"Naturally we want the party we share the most ideological goals with in government. That means that the SDLP will categorically refuse to support David Cameron and the Conservative party," he said.

"The austerity measures he has imposed upon Northern Ireland, which we continue to oppose, are only the beginning. A second Cameron-led government would inflict further cuts of £30bn on the public."

Shortly after the Alliance gathering, across the city at Belfast Castle, Sinn Fein also held its first election event, with what they called a 'people's pact'.

Party president Gerry Adams said: "Any parties which contemplate endorsing or supporting a cabinet of millionaires who are behind budget cuts, cuts to public services and cuts to social protections, are ignoring the needs of the people in favour of narrow self-interest."

Quotes

"It's not actually about the flag this time. Others may wish it were - it would make it a much easier campaign for some people if they could just wrap themselves in the flag and that was all that mattered, but I think the electorate are more sophisticated than that."

Naomi Long, Alliance

"We want to get the largest vote possible to oppose those austerity policies. We are committed to defending the core public services of health, education and the welfare system."

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader

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