Political news

Stormont ministers among potential election scalps

Last May's election went to the wire for the SDLP's Alex Attwood. Picture by Hugh Russell

STORMONT ministers past and present are among those for whom re-election to the assembly could prove far from straightforward.

In addition to the normal challenges facing outgoing MLAs at the polls, the reduction in seats from 108 to 90 makes a return to Parliament Buildings doubly difficult for some.

Those who could find themselves exploring a new career path after March 2 include education minister Peter Weir, justice minister Claire Sugden and former environment minister Alex Attwood.

Of all the sitting MLAs, arguably Mr Attwood has most to fear.

Mirroring the broader picture across the north, the SDLP's vote in West Belfast has been declining since the days when Joe Hendron held the Westminster seat.

For a while last May it was touch and go for the sixth assembly seat for Mr Attwood, who for much of the count trailed the DUP's Frank McCoubrey.

It was only on the eighth and final count that with the help of transfers from Sinn Féin, Mr Attwood finally nosed ahead of the former Ulster Democratic Party councillor. In the end just 90 votes separated the two.

It's debatable whether the DUP can add to its vote this time around, but the SDLP will ensure it knocks a few extra doors in West Belfast over the coming weeks.

The DUP's Peter Weir could have been forgiven for thinking he'd fallen on his feet when he was appointed education minister last May.

However, after less than a year in the job the former 'baby barrister' finds himself facing the electorate once again. This time, however, he is not standing in his native North Down but in neighbouring Strangford, where the DUP felt his prospects of election were greater.

Running alongside two party colleagues who were also ministers in the last executive has both potential benefits and drawbacks for Mr Weir, who will probably get a lift from Michelle McIlveen and Simon Hamilton's profile but be relegated to the third choice for most DUP voters.

His task is made more difficult by Jonathan Bell's decision to run against his erstwhile comrades. Strangford is a crowded, unionist-dominated field where it looks like either Mr Weir or recently-elected Ulster Unionist Philip Smith will fall victim to the Stormont's downsizing.

A senior Sinn Féin figure and predecessor in the education department also had a nail-biting wait to win election in Upper Bann last year.

Both John O'Dowd and running mate Catherine Seeley failed to reach the quota and it was late on the Saturday after polling day before they finally crossed the line ahead of the SDLP's Dolores Kelly.

Ostensibly this suggests the former education minister could be in trouble in a five-seat contest. However, it could be argued that the two Sinn Féin MLAs were only elected on the eleventh and final count as a result of perfect vote management.

After less than nine months as an MLA, Ms Seeley has decided not to stand again and is replaced on the ticket by Nuala Toman, a move which is likely to help Mr O'Dowd.

In North Belfast, it also looks like a head-to-head battle for the fifth seat between former Sinn Féin minister Carál Ní Chuilín and the SDLP's rising star Nichola Mallon.

The former will benefit greatly from Gerry Kelly's surplus, while the latter hopes to augment her first preferences with transfers from the middle ground and soft unionism.

There has also been speculation that former justice minister Claire Sugden could face a difficult election in East Derry.

Vote distribution from last May and her high profile at Stormont would suggest the independent unionist can get home safely.

However, she also faced criticism over her decision to join the executive and Ms Sudgen's decision not to support a vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster before Christmas could have cost her some votes.

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