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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Traditional battles dominate poll
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

As ever, the general election in Northern Ireland will be dominated by two parallel battles.

Ballot box
The governments will wait to assess the election results
The contest between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists will be mirrored by the struggle between Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

With the failure of the British and Irish governments' attempts to broker a deal to restore devolution in December, followed by the allegations of IRA involvement in the Northern Bank robbery, the political process is in a deep quagmire.

The general belief is that officials will want to see the outcome of the general election before assessing how, if at all, a way forward can be found.

A poll commissioned by the BBC Newsnight programme and the Belfast Telegraph in early March suggested that on the unionist side, the DUP was becoming an increasingly dominant force.

The poll put the DUP on 28% support in comparison to the UUP on only 16%.

David Burnside (left) and William McCrea
David Burnside is defending his seat against William McCrea
This followed clear DUP leads in both the European election of June 2004 and the Stormont assembly election of November 2003.

In the last general election in 2001, the DUP took three Ulster Unionist seats in Strangford, East Londonderry and North Belfast.

This time around, the DUP have more Ulster Unionist seats in their sights.

The former lord mayor of Belfast, Sammy Wilson, is once again targeting the outgoing Ulster Unionist MP, Roy Beggs, in East Antrim.

There could be a close contest between the DUP's William McCrea and the outgoing Ulster Unionist MP, David Burnside, in South Antrim, while Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble will have to work hard to save his own seat of Upper Bann.

In 2001, DUP challenger David Simpson was only 2,000 votes behind him.

The old anti-Agreement/pro-Agreement battle lines between the two unionist parties have been blurred following the DUP's willingness to enter negotiations aimed at creating a Stormont executive in which they would have shared power with Sinn Fein.

Mitchel McLaughlin (left) and Mark Durkan
Mitchel McLaughlin and Mark Durkan are competing for Foyle
The Ulster Unionists have accused the DUP of stealing their clothes.

The DUP claim that the deal they were negotiating would have changed the Good Friday Agreement in a radical manner.

If the DUP has been on the up as far as unionism is concerned, the growing force in nationalism is undoubtedly Sinn Fein.

They overhauled the SDLP in both the 2001 Westminster election and the November 2003 Stormont assembly poll.

Sinn Fein's pole position was underlined in the European election of June 2004 when they captured the seat for so long held by SDLP founder John Hume.

In this election, no-one believes any of Sinn Fein's four seats are under threat, especially if, as seems certain, the unionists do not reach any kind of tactical deal in Fermanagh-South Tyrone or West Tyrone.

However, there has been considerable speculation that the difficulties caused to republicans by both the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney could slow the party's rate of growth.

Roy Beggs (left) and Sammy Wilson
Roy Beggs hopes to see off Sammy Wilson's challenge in East Antrim
The Newsnight-Belfast Telegraph poll did not provide observers with a clear indicator on this front.

It suggested Sinn Fein and the SDLP were level pegging at 20 percentage points each.

Compared with the November 2003 assembly elections, this appeared to indicate a slight decline in Sinn Fein support and a rally by the SDLP.

But a similar poll taken on the eve of the assembly elections had understated Sinn Fein support, so it would be unwise to try to discern any clear trend.

Despite the IRA's difficulties, Sinn Fein clearly has in its sights the Newry and Armagh seat being vacated by SDLP veteran Seamus Mallon.

Sinn Fein's Stormont whip Conor Murphy is in a strong position to take the seat, which is being defended for the SDLP by assembly member Dominic Bradley.

Another SDLP veteran, Eddie McGrady, is refusing to retire, in large part because he does not want Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane to capture his South Down constituency.

But probably the key fight within nationalism will be in Foyle, where SDLP leader Mark Durkan hopes to succeed John Hume as the local MP.

It is certain that Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin will mount an energetic fight for Foyle.

Catriona Ruane (left) and Eddie McGrady
Catriona Ruane is aiming to unseat Eddie McGrady in South Down
If Mr Durkan loses the seat, his days as SDLP leader must be numbered.

Besides these obvious battlegrounds, there promises to be some very interesting contests in constituencies like South Belfast and North Down.

Apart from the four main parties, the fifth party, Alliance, will contest a number of seats as will other parties such as the UK Unionists, the Workers Party, the Conservatives, the Greens, the Vote for Yourself Party and the Socialist Environmental Alliance.

The health campaigner, Dr Kieran Deeny, who caused an upset by securing election as an assembly member in West Tyrone in 2003, is also promising to stand again and could benefit if some parties stand aside in his favour.

Once the election results are known, the British and Irish governments will survey who is still left standing.

Depending on the new political facts of life, they will then try to assess how to ensure the summer marching season can be kept calm and how the peace process Humpty Dumpty can be put together again.






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