SF sacrifice to save seats
SF sacrifice to save seats

A shock announcement that Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey has withdrawn from the Westminster election in south Belfast was greeted with only hostility by the main beneficiaries of the move, the rival nationalist SDLP.

Announcing the decision on Tuesday, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said: “This is a bold leadership initiative by Sinn Fein. It is about protecting and defending two nationalist seats.”

The move will allow the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell a free run in South Belfast on May 6th, but failed to win a reciprocal gesture from the SDLP for Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

The SDLP continued to refuse a Sinn Fein appeal to agree candidates in both constituencies in response to the selection of unionist unity candidate, Rodney Connor, as a means of unseating Gildernew.

“The decision by the unionist parties at the behest of the Orange Order and with the connivance of the British Tory party to come together and agree a unity candidate here in Fermanagh/South Tyrone changed the political dynamic of this election,” said Mr Adams.

“Despite our profound differences with the SDLP, Sinn Fein believe that nationalist representation should be maximised and protected.

“I wrote to [SDLP leader] Margaret Ritchie about this after it was clear that nationalists on the doorsteps were demanding such a move. Unfortunately the SDLP leader would not meet with me to discuss this issue.

“Margaret Ritchie failed her first leadership test. Sinn Fein today is demonstrating leadership in the wider interests of nationalism not for narrow party political concerns.”

Ms Gildernew was pointedly present when Sinn Fein dramatically revealed it was unilaterally withdrawing Mr Maskey’s nomination. However, she now faces a very high risk of losing her seat to Connor as a result of the SDLP’s decision to keep its candidate, Fearghal McKinney, in the race.

“We have taken this unilateral initiative with the sole aim of maximising nationalist representation by standing aside in South Belfast. I believe that this initiative will be widely welcomed by nationalists although there will be understandable disappointment in South Belfast that they will not have a republican candidate,” said Mr Adams.

The SDLP surprisingly claimed the move would help unionism regain the south Belfast seat.

“People only have to look at the recent election results to see that Sinn Fein’s small vote in the South Belfast constituency would make little difference to the election outcome,” said Ms Ritchie.

She described the move as the “latest sectarian headcount” and an “insult to the intelligence of the electorate”.

“Disguised to appear as an act of nationalist solidarity, Sinn Fein set out to ensure there would be a united unionist candidate so that they could achieve their real goal-to unseat Alasdair McDonnell, a man who has been an outstanding MP for the people of the area,” she said.

She also criticised Sinn Fein’s abstentionist stance, saying the SDLP would be in Westminster to maximise the British subvention to the north. Butt it did not go unnoticed that Sinn Fein’s decision to support McDonnell in south Belfast marks the first time the party has encouraged its supporters to vote for someone who takes his seat in Westminster.

Mr Maskey responded by criticising Ritchie for “dismissing” the republican electorate in south Belfast.

“If the SDLP want republicans to vote for them in South Belfast they are going to have to start asking them and they’re going to have to stop insulting the intelligence of the republican electorate.

“Sinn Fein obviously has many differences with the SDLP and with Alasdair McDonnell as well but we have given them a free run in South Belfast and the insulting and offensive way they have responded to that has caused some anger and confusion.

“There are lots of issues in this election and one of them is leadership and I think the SDLP is failing in this.”

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