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How the 'Big Two' are living off old allegiances

This most intriguing of elections looks set to provide an intriguing result in Northern Ireland, something which says much about the state of politics, the parties, and the verdict of voters on them.

One of its most fascinating features is that both unionist and republican voters are doggedly sticking with their two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The two will at most lose a seat each - but, even if they do, they will remain dominant in Ulster politics. This is in spite of the fact that both have for months been battered by waves of negative publicity.

Many thousands of words have been written regarding Iris Robinson's affair, and her husband Peter's interesting financial dealings.

Meanwhile, Gerry Adams's brother Liam has been much in the headlines, as have accusations that the Sinn Fein president himself was, as a member of the IRA, closely involved in murders.

But still, according to today's Belfast Telegraph poll, the voters are poised to turn out and, in the main, put their crosses beside the names of DUP and Sinn Fein candidates.

And if, in the knife-edge contest in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew should lose her seat, it will not be because of any republican misdeeds, but rather because there is an agreed unionist candidate.

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But it is the DUP which will find most to ponder on in this poll. A block of eight or nine seats in the new House of Commons would make it a close contender to play a key role in a hung Parliament.

But the paradox is that it will hold its seats while simultaneously experiencing a degree of punishment.

The poll tells the story: it will keep seats, but forfeit votes as many of its former supporters stay home.

The revelations and allegations swirling around Peter and Iris mean that the party vote is going to slump in many areas.

The arithmetic shows that five DUP seats seem rock-solid, while the other four look fairly safe.

It is set to hold East Belfast, Strangford, Lagan Valley, East Antrim, and East Londonderry. In each of these it is ahead by some distance.

It will probably hold Upper Bann, North Belfast, South Antrim and North Antrim - though the Rev William McCrea and Ian Paisley Jnr will experience some nagging anxiety until the results are actually announced.

Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice has made real inroads in North Antrim, and even in some of its ultra-safe strongholds DUP support has tumbled by levels which are bound to alarm any political party. Compared with the 2005 contest, North Antrim is down by 15%, and Strangford down by 14%.

It is obviously no coincidence that the biggest drops are in Paisley and Robinson areas, where many voters are clearly disgruntled with the record of the DUP dynasties.

But party support is down in eight of the nine DUP-held seats - only Sammy Wilson in East Antrim escaping the wrath of the electorate.

One element of consolation is that Peter Robinson's support in East Belfast has dropped by 7% - an unwelcome decline for a party leader, but less than some had forecast.

The Ulster Unionists and Conservatives have not, however, benefited from the DUP dip, since only party leader Sir Reg Empey is within striking distance of a seat - that being the one in South Antrim.

Even there the 'New Force' concept has not provided any major boost, since the opinion poll figures are very much in line with the 2005 outcome.

The SDLP will take cheer from the fact that its three seats look safe.

New leader Margaret Ritchie is fending off the republican challenge in South Down, while Alasdair McDonnell is benefiting from Sinn Fein's withdrawal in South Belfast.

Sinn Fein support has meanwhile risen in many areas, both where the party holds seats and where it does not. Its vote has gone up in its Mid-Ulster, West Tyrone, and Newry and Armagh strongholds.

It is also on the rise in a range of other constituencies, most strikingly in Upper Bann, where it has increased from 21% to 30%.

The only real sign of any voter disapproval of Sinn Fein's record comes in West Belfast, where Gerry Adams is down from 70% to 64%.

Republicans can argue that this decrease has limited significance, given that the Adams vote was huge to begin with. The figure of 64% remains by far the biggest showing of any candidate in any constituency.

Still, the SDLP is recording an unusual rise in West Belfast, from 14% to 22%. This will give the republicans pause for thought, since it appears to register some element of nationalist reservations.

Overall, however, there is much more evidence of disapproval of the DUP. The absence of an Ulster Unionist party revival indicates the DUP will stay ahead.

But its continuing command of unionism will be balanced by the clear message from many voters that in future higher standards will be required.


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