Page last updated at 07:46 GMT, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Fun and games ahead in Euro poll

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI political correspondent

EU flag
The next European election takes place on June 4

The DUP has always topped the poll in Northern Ireland in the European election. Even without Ian Paisley in 2004, Jim Allister was 30,000 votes ahead of his nearest rival - Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brun.

However, since his split from the DUP, the European race, now just six months away, has become much more interesting - and harder to predict.

The poll will be the first significant test of opinion since the DUP and Sinn Féin entered a power-sharing deal.

The DUP has yet to field a candidate, insisting it did not make its last European selection, Mr Allister, until a few months before the poll.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the party's director of elections, said the DUP will make a choice in the new year.

Jim Allister
Jim Allister left the DUP over power-sharing with Sinn Féin

A party insider told the BBC some months ago that a short list has been drawn up - and there is speculation that the DUP minister and MP Nigel Dodds is on it.

The DUP is not commenting on this, but Mr Dodds, who would have to quit Westminster and the Executive, is the type of big hitter the DUP may feel it needs to see off its new rival and defend its poll-topping record.

Mr Donaldson has of course brushed aside Mr Allister's suggestions that it step aside in the interests of unionism.

"Jim Allister is a one man band and there's no way that people in Northern Ireland are going to vote for his kind of negative politics," said the Lagan Valley MP.

"They want someone who is going to be positive, who is going to provide leadership and who is capable of topping the poll. Jim Allister will never top of the poll in a European election. That would be a gift to Sinn Féin."

Bairbre de Brun
Bairbre de Brun says she is not bothered about topping the poll

But Mr Allister, who agrees it is a David and Goliath race, in turn has accused the DUP of hypocrisy. He claimed the DUP cannot say it wants to stop Sinn Fein while sharing power with the party at Stormont.

"You know to prop them up by day in government at the top of the joint office of First Minister and then to pretend when they go out on the doors in the evening that they are the party to stop Sinn Féin? Come, come... I think the electorate will see right through that."

Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brun claims her focus is not on topping the poll, but campaigning on the issues.

"My focus in the election is to get re-elected to continue the work I've been doing, to work on the major issues...including the economy and how the EU can boost the economy here in the time ahead."

Alban Maginness
Alban Maginness claims he could take a seat, possibly from Jim Nicholson

The SDLP, which lost John Hume's old seat to Sinn Féin, is hoping to gain advantage from the unionist divisions.

Alban Maginness who has been selected to stand claims that he could take a seat, possibly from Jim Nicholson, if the conditions were right. He also claims there is disillusionment with Sinn Féin.

"This is the most open European election in living memory and the divisions which exist between Jim Allister and the DUP make this a fascinating election," said Mr Maginness.

His boast - something of a long shot - was met with a sanguine response from Jim Nicholson: "Well, good luck to them. I'll certainly be making sure he doesn't."

Mr Nicholson seems more confident than usual given that Mr Allister has now split from the DUP.

Jim Nicholson
Jim Nicholson is the longest serving of Northern Ireland's MEPs

He is the longest serving of the Northern Ireland MEPs and is relieved his party, once rife with divisions, is now united.

But he said it's up to the voters: "I'm taking nothing for granted. Let me tell you that I remember Dr Paisley telling me many years ago you fight every election like it is the first one, and I'm certainly going out there to top the poll."

The Alliance party intends to field a candidate if there is no agreement on a unity candidate.

The polls open on June 4, although due to voting across Europe, the results are not expected until four days later.

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