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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Changes certain in race for poll
Gareth Gordon
by Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

It may be the most unpredictable general election in Northern Ireland for many years but one outcome is certain - at least three constituencies will have new MPs come 6 May.

Three of the best known political figures are retiring - the former SDLP leader John Hume; his long-time deputy Seamus Mallon and the Ulster Unionist MP for South Belfast, the Reverend Martin Smyth.

John Hume
John Hume will not contest the Foyle seat in the general election

They have a combined age of 210; and 64 years experience at Westminster between them. But now three new - or not so new - faces will take their place.

There's no question Mr Hume's exit is the most notable - if the most predictable.

Nobel Peace prize winner; friend of prime ministers and presidents; and perhaps the key figure in the peace process.

It's been a long political goodbye.

He has already handed over the reigns of the party to his protege, fellow Derry-man Mark Durkan; and last year he retired as an MEP after 25 years distinguished service in Strasbourg and Brussels.

Problem is the SDLP could not defend the seat which went instead to Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun.

Now Mr Durkan is desperately trying to avoid the same fate as he seeks to follow Mr Hume as MP for Foyle.

Seamus Mallon
Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy is favourite to take Mr Mallon's seat

Seamus Mallon - more blunt and perhaps more in tune with grassroots nationalism than Mr Hume - made a formidable number two.

Were he a little younger he would have been an obvious successor - a man who would have relished the challenge now posed to the SDLP by Sinn Fein.

But he and Mr Hume grew old together - along with a generation of SDLP figures like Brid Rodgers, and Eddie McGrady who at 69 will now fight on alone as he seeks to defend his seat in South Down.

Mr McGrady is thought to have a very good chance of being returned - but Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy is hot favourite to take the Newry and Armagh seat held by Mr Mallon since 1986.

The fight to follow Mr Smyth is likely to be one of the toughest of this election.

He has held South Belfast since a by-election in February 1982, following the IRA murder of his friend, the Reverend Robert Bradford.

Martin Smyth
Rev Martin Smyth has been an MP since 1982

A leading critic of the Good Friday Agreement and the policies of his party leader David Trimble, whom he challenged for the leadership in March 2000, Martin Smyth hasn't even had to face a contest from the DUP for many elections.

But Michael McGimpsey, who will now fight the seat for the Ulster Unionists, is from the opposite wing of the party to Mr Smyth.

He's a strong advocate of the Agreement and thus will face a strong DUP challenge.

The obvious danger for both parties is that they could split the vote to such an extent that the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell could come through and win - though it is perhaps unlikely.






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