Northern Ireland news

Sinn Féin withdraws to give Claire Hanna best chance in South Belfast

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald with North Belfast candidate John Finucane and party vice president Michelle O'Neill. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

SINN Féin is to stand aside in South Belfast, boosting significantly the prospects of Claire Hanna retaking the seat for the SDLP.

The move came within hours of the SDLP's Nichola Mallon announcing that she would not contest North Belfast, where Sinn Féin lord mayor John Finucane is hoping to overturn a DUP majority of just over 2,000.

Sinn Féin will also follow the SDLP's example by not standing in East Belfast and North Down in an effort to help respective pro-Remain candidates Naomi Long of Alliance and independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon.

The party's approach in North Down is especially noteworthy given that it is explicitly urging its supporters to vote for a unionist.

Speaking in Belfast yesterday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said next month's Westminster election was about the "future of our children, our families and communities".

Analysis: Sinn Féin's withdrawal in South Belfast presents best opportunity for a pro-EU MP

"Since the referendum Sinn Féin has worked with the other pro remain parties to send a clear message to the British government, the EU, the Irish government and the US, that the DUP does not speak for the north – Sinn Féin has stood up for the majority who voted to reject Brexit," she said.

"The recent EU election showed there is an appetite among pro-Remain and progressive voters for increasing co-operation between those who represent the majority who voted to stay in the EU."

Election posters in South Belfast for Emma Little-Pengelly and Claire Hanna. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

She said over recent weeks her deputy Michelle O’Neill had engaged with the other political parties to explore how best to elect the maximum number of pro-Remain candidates.

“So I welcome the decision by the SDLP not to stand in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down," the Dublin TD said.

"That is in our opinion the right decision and we repeat our call to other pro-Remain parties to consider their position.

“For our part Sinn Féin will not be standing candidates in East Belfast, South Belfast or North Down."

Mrs McDonald said it sat comfortably with her to urge Sinn Féin supporters to vote for a unionist.

"It sits very comfortably with me to ask and invite voters to thoughtfully do the right thing," she said.

"And in this case it means defying hard Brexiteers, the likes of Nigel Dodds, the likes of the DUP candidates who have very, very recklessly acted against the interests of everybody."

The  Green Party announced this morning that it will also not be standing a candidate in South Belfast.

Meanwhile, the SDLP has confirmed that the party's former chief executive will contest the South Down seat, where Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard commands a 2,446 majority.

Newry councillor Michael Savage emerged as the party's candidate despite what are understood to have been prolonged efforts to entice somebody else into the role.

Senior SDLP representatives spent several weeks trying to persuade a non-party member who was born in the constituency but now lives outside Northern Ireland to run against Mr Hazzard.

Speaking after his selection, Mr Savage described Brexit as a "national emergency".

"At a time of immense crisis, it’s just not good enough that our MP has decided to abstain on this island’s future," he said.

"Boris Johnson, the DUP and others are delighted that it’s one less vote against their plans to privatise our health service and sell large chunks off to American profiteers. They are delighted that there’s no one representing people here who oppose welfare cuts and austerity that have left the most vulnerable destitute."

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