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Saturday, 29 April, 2000, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
Unionist dilemma over South Antrim seat
Pro and anti-agreement battle expected for Forsythe seat
Pro and anti-agreement battle for Forsythe seat
By BBC NI political correspondent Mark Simpson

The sudden death of South Antrim MP Clifford Forsythe has left the Ulster Unionist Party with a dilemma.

There is no obvious successor to the long-serving MP, and a major debate within the party is under way as to whether he should be replaced by a pro-Agreement or an anti-Agreement candidate.

Mr Forsythe,70, was a staunch opponent of the Good Friday Agreement.

Agreement test after sudden death of Clifford Forsythe
Agreement test after sudden death of Clifford Forsythe
He may have been a quietly-spoken man, but his views were passionately held.

There are a number of prominent anti-agreement Ulster Unionists connected to the constituency, most notably barristers John Hunter and Peter King, who both served in the 1996-98 NI Forum as members for South Antrim.

But the constituency is currently represented in the Stormont Assembly by two pro-agreement Ulster Unionists - Jim Wilson and Duncan Shipley-Dalton.

All four names are being mentioned in political circles as possible UUP candidates - as is the London-based unionist David Burnside.

But party officials are approaching the situation cautiously. One insider said: "The field is open. There is no early favourite and there is still the potential for a surprise candidate."

The BBC's mark Simpson
Mark Simpson: By-election at this time will be hot contest
The DUP have lined up the Reverend William McCrea as their runner. He lost the Mid Ulster seat in 1997 to Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and is keen to switch constituencies.

South Antrim may be a safe unionist seat, but it is not necessarily a safe Ulster Unionist seat.

Clifford Forsythe gained a 16,500-majority at the last general election but the DUP did not contest the seat.

In the 1998 assembly election, the gap between the UUP and the DUP was just under 4,500 votes.

Of the other parties, the SDLP are the strongest, with an 18% share of the vote at the assembly election.

The scene is now set for a political battle for the hearts and minds of South Antrim. It is the first by-election in Northern Ireland since the North Down MP, Sir James Kilfedder, died in 1995.

On that occasion, the turn-out was a mere 39% - the lowest ever in a parliamentary by-election in Northern Ireland.

Given the current political temperature, the South Antrim by-election is likely to stir up much more interest.

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29 Apr 00 | Northern Ireland
Tributes paid to MP
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