Tributes as emotional Lady Hermon steps aside in North Down
Politicians from across the divide have united to pay tribute to Lady Sylvia Hermon after her announcement that she is not standing in next month's Westminster election.
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The DUP is now the clear favourite to win the seat which Lady Sylvia has held for 18 years.
She was first elected as an Ulster Unionist but had sat as an independent since 2010 after she left the party in opposition to its short-lived alliance with the Tories.
Her majority declined significantly in the last election.
She came in just 1,200 votes ahead of DUP MLA Alex Easton, whom she had beaten by 9,000 votes two years earlier.
A win for the DUP in North Down would help compensate for possible losses in South and North Belfast.
The Ulster Unionists, Green Party and Alliance are also expected to contest the seat with the latter possibly running its deputy leader Stephen Farry.
The independent unionist MP has been the only Northern Ireland pro-Remain voice in the House of Commons.
UUP leader-in-waiting Steve Aiken said: "We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Lady Sylvia Hermon, not only for her service to North Down but to all of Northern Ireland.
"She has been on many occasions a lone voice of reason in Westminster. She has served unionism and North Down with distinction.
"She is a dedicated public servant who treated her constituents with respect and integrity. I wish her well as she steps down from frontline elected politics and I hope she enjoys much more time with her family."
Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew described Lady Hermon as "a diligent representative for the people of North Down".
She said: "We have been friends since we were both elected to Westminster.
"While we held different political perspectives, I found her to be someone who acted at all times with respect and integrity.
"I want to wish Lady Sylvia and her family well in the future as she leaves elected politics at this election."
The Alliance Party described Lady Hermon as "a great servant to North Down and wider Northern Ireland over the past years".
Mr Farry said: "In particular, she has stood up against the reckless Brexit pursued by the DUP and others, and for the Good Friday Agreement. Alliance wish her well for her next steps."
The SDLP described Lady Hermon as a "strong solitary Remain voice standing up for people across Northern Ireland while DUP MPs misrepresented our position in London".
Party leader Colum Eastwood said: "Sylvia Hermon has put in a mammoth shift, single-handedly representing and defending the Remain majority in Northern Ireland at Westminster.
"While DUP MPs have distorted and misrepresented our position, Sylvia Hermon demonstrated the power and purpose of a single MP of immense conviction. She deserves our thanks and I hope she enjoys more well earned time with her family."
Noting that the DUP could win the seat, Mr Eastwood said his party would not divide the pro-Remain vote by standing in the constituency and he urged other parties to be "strategic, not selfish, here too".
He added: "Pro-Remain parties need to take some breathing space, analyse the results in North Down over the last number of elections at Assembly level, Westminster and others to determine how best to challenge a hard Brexit candidate."
Announcing her decision to retire, Lady Hermon said it had been the greatest honour of her life to serve her constituents.
"It is with enormous sadness that I have decided not to contest the next general election in December," she said.
"This has been a particularly difficult decision but, after much thought, I have concluded that it is the right decision for my family and for me at this time.
"During my 18 years as an MP I have tried hard to balance public and family responsibilities. I owe my family a huge debt of gratitude for allowing me, without ever a word of reproach, to spend so much time at Westminster.
"They understood how much joy and satisfaction I had from working on behalf of others.
"Now, however, my priorities for the next few years are to spend my time at home in Northern Ireland to see more of my family and to step back from the frontline of public life."
The Greens, Sinn Fein and the SDLP had all previously announced they were stepping aside to help Lady Hermon's re-election chances.
"I apologise most sincerely for any disappointment caused by my decision not to stand," she said.
"I wish to thank the wonderful staff who have worked alongside me since I was first elected.
"Their loyalty, friendship and hard work lightened my load, and definitely sustained me through those years.
"If my successor enjoys the role of MP for North Down half as much as I have done, a smile will constantly be on his or her face."
In 2005 she was the only UUP MP to retain her seat after the party suffered a disastrous Westminster election.
Sinn Fein had faced criticism from some republicans for endorsing Lady Hermon, the widow of former RUC Chief Constable Sir Jack Hermon, in the poll.