Maskey pulls out of race in South Belfast


WESTMINSTER 2010: NORTHERN IRELAND ELECTIONS:THE ELECTION in South Belfast took a twist yesterday after Sinn Féin Assembly member Alex Maskey withdrew his candidature.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams made his announcement that Mr Maskey was standing aside in South Belfast where the outgoing MP is the SDLP’s Dr Alasdair McDonnell while canvassing yesterday in the marginal constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

“This is a bold leadership initiative by Sinn Féin. It is about protecting and defending two nationalist seats,” said Mr Adams. He said it would be “widely welcomed by nationalists”.

Dr McDonnell won South Belfast in 2005 by 1,200 votes due to the DUP and Ulster Unionist candidates splitting the overall unionist vote. Mr Maskey polled 2,882 votes five years ago, many of which could now go to Dr McDonnell which would improve his prospects of retaining South Belfast.

There are two unionist candidates standing in South Belfast, Jimmy Spratt for the DUP who polled 9,104 votes to Dr McDonnell’s 10,330 votes in 2005, and Paula Bradshaw who is standing for the UUP-Tory alliance of UCUNF (Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force).

In a separate development, Mr Spratt contacted Ms Bradshaw just 90 minutes before nominations closed yesterday offering to hand her his Assembly seat if she withdrew from the election in South Belfast – an offer which she and UUP leader Sir Reg Empey rejected.

“Jimmy Spratt is the lead unionist candidate in South Belfast; he was only 1,200 votes behind Alasdair McDonnell the last time. This was a genuine attempt to agree a single unionist candidate and was in the interests of unionism,” said a DUP spokesman.

Sir Reg Empey however said the offer was “outrageous” and queried whether it broke the spirit of the electoral law. “It shows contempt for the electorate. The electorate choose their representatives. Can you imagine someone from Fianna Fáil trying to replace one of their members by someone from Fine Gael or Labour? Where would we end up if we got into that sort of thing? It is all very grubby,” he said.

Sir Reg said Mr Spratt, who had a mandate in the Assembly, should stand aside to allow Ms Bradshaw achieve a unionist mandate from South Belfast in the House of Commons.

While Mr Maskey’s withdrawal would appear to enhance Dr McDonnell’s’ chances of holding the seat, there were no expressions of gratitude from the SDLP. Dr McDonnell said it was a “gimmick”, while new SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said Sinn Féin’s move was “nothing more than a cynical election stunt and sectarian gimmick motivated by selfish interests”.

She suggested it was designed to put pressure on SDLP supporters to vote for the Sinn Féin candidate in Fermanagh-South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew rather than SDLP candidate Fearghal McKinney. “Sinn Féin’s decision is designed to do two things – sectarianise the election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and ensure that Alasdair McDonnell, an excellent cross community MP, loses his seat.”