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Northern Ireland politicians set for fierce election battle

Northern Ireland politicians face one of the fiercest battles for years ahead of the General Election on May 6.

Eighteen seats at Westminster are up for grabs in Northern Ireland.

Former Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader the Rev Ian Paisley is stepping down from his heartland in North Antrim and Traditional Unionist Jim Allister will pose a serious challenge.

DUP First Minister Peter Robinson has faced personal problems in recent weeks after the infidelity and attempted suicide of his wife Iris and revelations about the couple's dealings with developers.

Today he said: "This election presents the Northern Ireland electorate with the greatest opportunity in a generation.

"Every vote in the House of Commons will count. Therefore we need to send MPs to Westminster who will always vote in the interests of Northern Ireland."

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has confronted his own troubles about his brother Liam's alleged history of sex abuse, while he has faced questions over his alleged past knowledge of IRA killings.

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Today he said: "Coming after the successful conclusion of the negotiations at Hillsborough and the transfer of powers on policing and justice, this election will provide an opportunity for people to recommit their support for the peace process and for the process of change, which we have been central to driving forward."

Despite well documented problems, Sir Reg Empey hopes the alliance of his Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) with the Conservatives will bear fruit. The link-up has created dissension within the ranks, with Antrim councillor Adrian Watson threatening to quit the party after his candidature for Westminster was allegedly vetoed by the Tories.

Popular North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon will stand as an independent after resigning from the UUP over its Conservative ties.

Sir Reg and Conservative leader David Cameron said: "In Northern Ireland we are offering people a clear choice.

"Five more years of the same, tired old politics in Northern Ireland or a change of direction to a new optimism with the Conservatives and Unionists.

"Five more years of Northern Ireland stuck on the margins of UK politics with the local parties or back into the mainstream of UK politics with a Conservative and Unionist Government."

But Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Mr Allister said: "With the Ulster Unionists in a failed marriage with the Tories and unable to present cogent opposition to terrorist-inclusive government, TUV, I believe, will be the obvious and compelling choice for many traditional unionists of all shades," he said.

Nationalist SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie faces a challenge as she bids to become MP in South Down.

While Alliance leader David Ford said the election offered the best chance in a generation to place a "non-tribal" voice for Northern Ireland in Westminster.

He said: "Alliance is relishing the forthcoming election and we know that people want to vote for a positive and constructive party, instead of other parties who simply want to cause trouble."

Ms Ritchie said: "We have innovative policies which we know can make the life of hard-working families better.

"And in every case our ability to make a difference, to deliver for the people, to make life better, will be constrained by decisions made in Westminster.

"We intend to have a direct input into those decisions."

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