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14 April 2005 Edition

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Third time lucky

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

Sinn Féin election workers in Derry are confident but are not putting the cart before the horse

Sinn Féin election workers in Derry are confident but are not putting the cart before the horse

For the third time in less than 18 months, Six-County voters go to the polls on 5 May, this time to elect 18 members to Westminster as well as new councillors for the 26 district councils. It says something for the sophistication of Northern voters, who on the same day will be using two different electoral systems, with the single transferable voter PR system for the local elections and the flawed first past the post electoral system for the Westminster poll.

The results of these elections could also spell the end of the political leadership of David Trimble and Mark Durkan, so in the first of a three-week series, ROBBIE SMYTH previews the Westminster elections, highlighting past results and picking out the key contests on 5 May.

• East Derry

Sinn Féin's Billy Leonard was confirmed as the candidate in recent weeks. Leonard is the party's representative on Coleraine Council and is also running in the council elections. In 2001, the Sinn Féin vote share grew to 15.6%, with Francie Brolly recording an impressive 6,221 votes.

The November 2003 election saw the Sinn Féin vote share rise to 17.86%, passing out the SDLP on 16.29%. Sinn Féin will be looking to stretch the gap even further on the SDLP and has opened a new party office in Kilrea to better service Coleraine voters. John Dallat is the SDLP candidate.

Gregory Campbell won this seat at his second attempt in 2001 and with the DUP opening up a nearly 10% margin on the Ulster Unionists in 2003, it seems unlikely that he will be unseated this time.

• Foyle

The departure of John Hume from the political stage has made this a crunch election and the SDLP have been leaving no stone unturned in their campaign to hold the seat for party leader Mark Durkan against a very strong challenge from Mitchel McLaughlin.

It has been clear for some years that Hume's popularity was greater than that of the SDLP. In 1997, Hume took the Westminster seat for the fourth consecutive time, with 52.51% of the vote. In the 1998 Assembly election, the SDLP vote share fell to 47.84%.

In 2001 Westminster elections, Hume's vote slipped to 50% and in the 2003 Assembly elections the SDLP vote fell again, to 36.14%.

Sinn Féin's vote in the constituency has grown from just under 24% in 1997 to 26% in 1998 and 2001, rising to 32.38% in 2003.

Winning this seat would be a big gain for Sinn Féin in Derry, but it will still take a lot of work to close the gap.

William Hay is running for the DUP and Earl Storey is the UUP candidate.

• Mid Ulster

Martin McGuinness is seeking to hold this seat for Sinn Féin for the third consecutive term. The UUP allowed the DUP a clear run in 2001 but were no match for Sinn Féin, who won 51% of the poll. The DUP were second on 31%, with the SDLP trailing in third on just under 17% of the vote

In 2003, under the PR system, with six Assembly seats up for grabs, Sinn Féin took three, with 45.52% of the vote, compared to one seat each for the DUP on 20.83%, SDLP on 18.34% and the UUP on 14.41%.

• West Tyrone

Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty won this seat in 2001, with a near 10% vote surge for the party. Doherty took 40.83% of the votes, compared to 30.44% for the UUP's William Thompson and 28.73% for the SDLP's Brid Rogers.

In 2003, the Sinn Féin share was 38.61% of the vote, compared to 17.46% for the DUP, 14.64% for the SDLP and 13.58% for the UUP. The surprise of this election was the 14.76% vote for Independent candidate Kieran Deeny, who is running again in the Westminster elections.

The SDLP has been publicly rowing over whether or not to give Deeny a clear run this time. The DUP and UUP have both fielded candidates. MLA Thomas Buchanan is the DUP candidate while the UUP is to nominate Derek Hussey, but the parties could still agree to run one candidate if they thought the seat was winnable.

At this stage, it is unclear who will actually be at the starting post come 5 May and the Sinn Féin organisation will be under pressure from all sides over the coming three weeks.

• North Antrim

The shock of the 2003 Assembly elections was the victory of Philip McGuigan, who won an Assembly seat in this DUP heartland. Sinn Féin won 14% of the vote and seat McGuigan is now contesting the Westminster poll.

The SDLP had taken just over 13% of the vote here in 2003 and though their vote had fallen, it didn't explain the 5.91% surge to Sinn Féin.

Ian Paisley took 49.86% of the vote here in 2001 and the seat. With the exit of Hume, Paisley is now the longest serving Six-County MP.

• South Antrim

The outspoken and controversial David Burnside won this seat for the Ulster Unionists in 2001, with 37% of the vote, just narrowly ahead of the DUP's Robert McCrea on 34.77% of the vote.

In the 2003 Assembly elections the DUP were marginally ahead of the UUP. This time, the DUP had a 30.60% vote share, compared to 29.81% for the UUP. In terms of the DUP-UUP election battle, this is a key constituency and a loss here for the UUP of a seat from one the anti-Agreement members of their own party will be a big blow. Sammy Wilson is the DUP candidate.

Henry Cushnihan is running for Sinn Féin. The party won 9.42% of the vote in 2001, rising to 11.48% in 2003, and could pass out the SDLP this time, who are running Noreen McClelland.

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