Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Hermon decision a godsend for DUP... now all eyes on who UUP runs

Lady Sylvia Hermon (Julien Behal/PA)
Lady Sylvia Hermon (Julien Behal/PA)
Suzanne Breen

Suzanne Breen

Nothing had gone the DUP's way in this election until Lady Sylvia Hermon announced her decision to retire from politics.

They will have been cock-a-hoop in party HQ at that news because finally there is a chance of actually gaining a constituency in this poll.

The DUP is defending itself on more fronts than it has ever had to do in any election I can remember.

It faces likely defeat in South Belfast and Nigel Dodds is under immense pressure in the north of the city.

Although the DUP should be okay in South Antrim and East Belfast, it won't be taking either for granted.

The decision by the SDLP and the Greens to pull out of North Belfast, and Sinn Fein and the Greens to pull out of South Belfast, has piled the pressure on the party, particularly since they didn't see such moves coming.

So Lady Hermon's announcement is a godsend for the DUP. It was already breathing down her neck in the constituency and that is sure to have played no small part in her decision not to seek re-election.

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DUP MLA Alex Easton reduced the former independent unionist MP's majority from 9,000 to just 1,200 in 2017.

Party sources admit that Easton hardly sets the world on fire, but he's an assiduous grassroots worker as his growing vote reflects.

The DUP is, by a wide margin, the largest party in the constituency.

It also has the distinct advantage that support for its rivals is fairly evenly scattered.

In the 2017 Assembly election the DUP was on 38% with the UUP on 22% and Alliance on 19%. The Greens were on a very respectable 14%. So unless there is a pact involving at least two of the DUP's opponents, it's hard to see any of them pulling off a win.

Alliance's Stephen Farry took an early advantage last night by being first out of the blocks in declaring his candidacy. If the Greens step aside, it will boost his chances significantly.

It's a big call for Clare Bailey's party, which has opted out of every Belfast constituency. Former leader Steven Agnew built a very strong base in North Down and local activists will surely be keen that his groundwork isn't endangered.

Yet the Greens are still just the fourth largest party and it would be difficult for them to justify running against Farry while stepping aside for Remain candidates in Belfast.

The Ulster Unionists' choice of candidate will be instrumental in deciding who emerges as the DUP's main challenger. MLA Alan Chambers, who is a consistently strong performer at the polls, will surely throw his hat into the ring.

Doug Beattie's name has been mentioned but he's unlikely to want to parachute in from Upper Bann. It would be a high-risk move for Steve Aiken - who has hardly got off to a flying start in his leadership role - to jump over from South Antrim.

But North Down is a perfect fit for another UUP MLA. Mike Nesbitt's personal and political profile ticks all the boxes for this constituency. He ruled himself out from contesting his party's leadership last month due to a heart condition. But could he be tempted by North Down? His candidacy would certainly raise the stakes for all concerned.

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