Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Election mudslinging has begun ... now get set for tight race in North Belfast

Sinn Fein’s John Finucane and DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds are the front runners in the North Belfast constituency (PA)
Sinn Fein’s John Finucane and DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds are the front runners in the North Belfast constituency (PA)
Labour MP Kate Hoey
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

An election a fortnight before Christmas, but there is no spirit of goodwill between the parties.

Westminster polls are always more brutal and bruising than their Assembly equivalent.

The first-past-the-post system means that candidates can be savage with each other. They don't need to tone it down in order to secure transfers.

No election in Northern Ireland is ever inconsequential. But the stakes are sky high in this one, particularly in North Belfast, which is why we have already seen so much viciousness.

Paramilitary threats made against the Ulster Unionists before they changed their minds about running. Posters alleging that Sinn Fein's hands are "steeped in the blood of our loved ones". And the election hasn't even officially started yet. Expect it to get even more rough and ruthless over the next five weeks.

The unionist pact which sees the DUP standing aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and the UUP reciprocating in North Belfast, is ultimately not surprising and just repeats arrangements made in previous elections.

The DUP manoeuvred behind-the-scenes to try to find a unionist unity candidate, touting Kate Hoey as an option - but the Labour MP ruled herself out.

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Arlene Foster was never going to run in the constituency, although her candidacy would have been manna from heaven for Sinn Fein. Tom Elliott - who won't be officially selected until Thursday - took a bit of persuading by his party to stand. Michelle Gildernew is still favourite to win, but Elliott will run her closer than any other unionist candidate could hope to.

Sinn Fein standing aside in three constituencies isn't really eyebrow raising either. It won a combined total of less than 700 votes in North Down and East Belfast last time round.

The party's decision to opt out of South Belfast is more significant. But it's not breaking into new territory. It unilaterally stood aside for Alasdair McDonnell in 2010. MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir is reportedly leaving politics, and his political star has fallen significantly in recent times anyway.

It is the SDLP's decision to pull out of three constituencies which is the big news story. Doing so in North Down and East Belfast is largely a token gesture, but North Belfast is potentially a game-changer.

The party would never have withdrawn for Gerry Kelly. John Finucane's lack of IRA baggage, and professional and personal credentials, make him a much more palatable candidate for the SDLP to step aside for.

The significance of its decision was not lost on political commentator Brian Feeney. "Not since 1981 has the SDLP stood aside for a (republican) candidate.

"It did so then in Fermanagh and South Tyrone for Bobby Sands and then Owen Carron," he said.

"This move reflects the polarising nature of Brexit. Once its done, there's no going back for the SDLP."

The DUP argues that Sinn Fein threw everything at North Belfast in 2017 - when Fincucane had the benefit of being a fresh face - and yet he fell 2,000 votes short.

But that election showed nationalist voters that the gap is closing and the constituency is winnable - the DUP had a 5,000 strong lead in 2015.

Some SDLP voters will opt for Alliance rather than Sinn Fein, but the chance to politically "decapitate" the DUP's best brain will appeal to others, Feeney believes.

The unanimous support for the move in the SDLP - bar one former councillor - reflects the mood in the nationalist community.

North Belfast remains too close to call. Grassroots unionism is blaming Boris Johnson, and not the DUP, for the Brexit threat to the Union.

The result will hinge on whether the DUP or Sinn Fein have registered more new voters in the constituency, and who best get their supporters out on the day.

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