Election 2015 Northern Ireland

The box-office parliamentary battle for East Belfast

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Media captionBoth candidates have encountered barking dogs as they canvassed for support in east Belfast

The advantage of canvassing close to Stormont is that you can call on your party colleagues to help you out.

When I caught up with Gavin Robinson in the leafy streets just outside the Stormont estate he had his DUP colleagues Arlene Foster, Lord Morrow and Ian McCrea for company.

But there's no protection from a barking dog - or its owner. At one doorstep the householder told the DUP candidate not to worry, his animal didn't bite, before adding rather worryingly "unless I tell him to".

The pet owner then tackled Gavin Robinson about the pact agreed between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists in East Belfast, telling him "I didn't like you joining up with two parties together against Naomi".

The candidate responded that the deal had been decided "over my head".

On another doorstep not far away another candidate, Alliance's Naomi Long came across another over excited dog, named Chuckie. "Don't worry" the lady who answered the door assured her, "Chuckie's an Alliance supporter".

Naomi Long's victory over the DUP leader Peter Robinson, who held East Belfast for 30 years, was the big surprise of the 2010 election.

Alliance benefited from an anti-Robinson mood after TV investigations into his family's business dealings and a decision by some loyalists to lend their votes to Ms Long.


But since then the Alliance MP has found herself on the receiving end of death threats as a result of the Belfast council Union Flag dispute.

She told me the intimidation remains a regular occurrence - indeed she was hit by a projectile just this week after visiting a nail salon which had been targeted by racist arsonists.

Image caption The box-office battle in East Belfast is between the DUP's Gavin Robinson and the Alliance Party's Naomi Long

Whilst condemning that kind of behaviour, unionists argue that Alliance bears responsibility for its own decisions in limiting the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall.

Now Gavin Robinson, a namesake but not a relation of the DUP leader, has high hopes of winning East Belfast back for unionism.

The man with the barking dog might not like the pact, but others I talked to on the streets of East Belfast think unionists should have been co-operating long ago.

Gavin Robinson insists the pact has been broadly welcomed. But Naomi Long claims it has galvanised some Ulster Unionists to back her rather than let their choices be dictated by the unionist leaders.

Box office

Four others are competing for votes in East Belfast. They are Sinn Fein's Niall Ó Donnghaile, the SDLP's Mary Muldoon, the Greens' Ross Brown and the Conservative Neil Wilson.

But it's the DUP Alliance battle which is box office - something underlined by the large audience which packed out the Strand Cinema in East Belfast to watch the two frontrunners go head to head.

The Slugger O'Toole election debate wasn't quite the thriller some might have hoped for.

Both Naomi Long and Gavin Robinson were at pains to reject suggestions they can't stand each other. Gavin Robinson also distanced himself from remarks by his party leader that Ms Long she should "dry her eyes" rather than complaining about the unionist pact.

The candidates differed about issues like the extent of paramilitary racketeering or the impact a future withdrawal from the European Union might have on the local aircraft industry. Afterwards both sides claimed victory.

The audience were then ushered out to make way for the cinema's late showing "Fast and Furious 7", a title which could be adopted for the closely fought and sometimes heated contest in East Belfast.

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