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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 10:26 GMT
Key battlegrounds in NI poll
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Besides arguing that they needed a new manifesto to reflect the St Andrews Agreement, the DUP wanted a spring election to press home their advantage over their rivals the Ulster Unionists.

Map of Northern Ireland
Will the political landscape change?

On the nationalist side there was less enthusiasm for this poll, but Sinn Fein will hope that they can reinforce their position as the dominant nationalist party.

Apart from the usual dogfights between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, observers will be watching for what impact is made by unionists opposed to power-sharing and Irish republicans against any co-operation with the police.

Some new faces could also make an interesting impact in certain constituencies.

'Better deal'

Within unionism, East Belfast brings together some leading players.

It's the Westminster constituency of DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, generally considered his party's chief strategist in favour of restoring devolution.

Harland and Wolff cranes
Leading players will vie for seats in East Belfast

Sir Reg Empey is also a veteran of East Belfast politics but this will be his first election since becoming Ulster Unionist leader.

Sir Reg will no doubt criticise the DUP for stealing the Ulster Unionists' clothes, whilst Peter Robinson will argue that he has negotiated a better deal than David Trimble.

This election will also see the entry of Dawn Purvis into the fray. After the sudden death of David Ervine, Ms Purvis became leader of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionists.

It was generally assumed that Mr Ervine would have an uphill struggle retaining the PUP's only assembly seat - it will now be up to Ms Purvis to keep his legacy alive.

The Alliance deputy leader, Naomi Long, will also be looking to consolidate her position.

Within nationalism, Newry and Armagh could be one to watch. Sinn Fein deselected two of their outgoing MLAs, Patricia O'Rawe and Davy Hyland.

Newry and Armagh "could be one to watch"

Subsequently, Davy Hyland resigned from the party's assembly group, expressing opposition to the leadership's stance on policing.

He is now standing as an independent. If he holds his seat, it could be at the expense of his former colleagues.

The SDLP will be hopeful of holding on to their seat. On the unionist side, the DUP's Paul Berry topped the poll in the last assembly election.

But that was before he resigned from the party after newspaper coverage of his private life.

He is running again as an independent unionist on an anti-St Andrews Agreement ticket, but the DUP will still be hopeful of retaining one seat, as will the Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy.

Stranmillis Road, South Belfast
South Belfast saw a split unionist vote in the general election

South Belfast provided a surprise in the last Westminster election when the unionist vote split down the middle allowing the SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell to take the seat.

In 2003, the Ulster Unionists took two seats there and the DUP one.

But this time the DUP will be trying to establish itself as the stronger unionist party in order to set a precedent for future Westminster elections.

The DUP's Mark Robinson isn't running again. Its two candidates, Jimmy Spratt and Christopher Stalford, will be trying to pick off either the former Ulster Unionist minister, Michael McGimpsey, or his colleague Esmond Birnie.

On the nationalist side, Alasdair McDonnell and his SDLP colleague, Carmel Hanna, will once again face the former Belfast Sinn Fein mayor, Alec Maskey.

In a crowded field, observers will be fascinated to see whether the Alliance candidate can take a seat - Chinese welfare campaigner Anna Lo is the first ethnic minority candidate to stand for election in Northern Ireland.

Carlisle Circus, North Belfast
North Belfast could prove an interesting race

In North Belfast another interesting face has joined the race - anti-collusion campaigner Raymond McCord was so dismayed by the response of local unionists to the Police Ombudsman's report on the murder of his son that he has decided to run.

He only got 218 votes in the 2003 election but may benefit from the widespread publicity given to the Police Ombudsman's recent report into the UVF murder of his son.

The local DUP MP, Nigel Dodds, who has sounded increasingly sceptical about the St Andrews Agreement will lead his party's campaign alongside Nelson McCausland, with the Ulster Unionist Policing Board member, Fred Cobain, seeking to defend his seat.

Within nationalism Sinn Fein will be looking to retain two seats, with their policing spokesman Gerry Kelly once again pitted against the SDLP barrister Alban Maginness.

Antrim town
Sinn Fein are attempting to win a seat in South Antrim
One party leader who will have to work hard to keep his seat is Alliance leader David Ford.

He only scraped home in South Antrim with the help of unionist transfers after Sinn Fein's Martin Meehan received more first preference votes.

Now Sinn Fein has moved Mitchel McLaughlin to South Antrim from Foyle in an attempt to win a seat there for the first time.

Within the DUP, there has been a fair degree of turnover with the deselection of two outgoing MLAs Paul Girvan and Wilson Clyde.

Their replacements, Mel Lucas and Trevor Clarke, are both thought to be sceptical about the St Andrews Agreement, as is the local DUP MP William McCrea.

The Ulster Unionist ticket is led by the former MP, David Burnside, who is also dubious about power-sharing.

Giant's Causeway in north Antrim
Who will put their name into the hat in North Antrim?

Next door in North Antrim all eyes will be on the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, given his key role in deciding whether a power-sharing executive will return in March.

The DUP will probably hold its three seats, but it will be interesting to see who dares to unfurl an anti-St Andrews Agreement banner in the DUP leader's home patch.

On the nationalist side there is considerable turnover with the retirement of the SDLP veteran Sean Farren and the stepping down of Sinn Fein's Philip McGuigan.

Other seats to watch include North Down where the anti-St Andrews Agreement UK Unionist Bob McCartney is running.

He will hope for a strong showing, although some observers feel he might have done better if he had moved to a more hardline unionist area.

In South Down, two potential future ministers Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane and the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie will battle it out in the hope of setting a precedent for a future Westminster contest.

In the west, Sinn Fein face a number of challenges from anti-PSNI candidates like the former IRA man Gerry McGeough who is standing in Fermanagh.





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