Northern Ireland

General election 2017: 'Dogfight' in East Belfast

Victor the skateboarding bulldog
Image caption Victor the skateboarding bulldog is a popular attraction at CS Lewis Square in east Belfast

Victor the skateboarding bulldog knows the value of getting an easy run.

He is the star attraction at CS Lewis Square in east Belfast, where visitors line up to film his lunchtime displays.

But he is not the only one in the constituency feeling the benefit of an easy ride, if we are to believe the political pundits.

The Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Gavin Robinson is fighting to retain his Westminster seat without the benefit this time of a unionist pact.

But many believe the decision by the Ulster Unionists to field councillor Hazel Legge has played into his hands.

Though he did not want to admit it, the outgoing MP said it was clearly a two-horse race.

"The choice is between me and the Alliance Party," said Mr Robinson.

Image caption The DUP's Gavin Robinson is fighting to retain his seat

"I don't think the other parties are featuring much on the doorsteps - I haven't heard many other names come up.

"The message we are getting is from a unionist electorate who want to keep their MP at Westminster to ensure they get the best deal possible for East Belfast."

Although he held the seat for two years, the DUP man is not the bookies' favourite to win this time.

That honour goes to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who pulled off the shock of the 2010 election when she unseated the then DUP leader and first minister Peter Robinson.

Image caption Alliance's Naomi Long says she is taking nothing for granted

She was installed as the favourite after the unionists failed to agree a pact.

"I don't pay much attention to being the bookies' favourite, it is being the public's favourite that matters," said Mrs Long.

"I remember when I won the seat in 2010, I was the 100-1 outsider."

On the absence of a unionist deal she said her party "would have been fighting to win whether there was a pact or not".

Image caption Hazel Legge is the Ulster Unionist candidate in east Belfast

"We came very close the last time, within 2,000 votes against a five-party pact," she said.

"This time we have one other unionist running but we still have a number of parties who haven't put their names on the ballot so I take nothing for granted.

"We will fight the seat on our party policies, what other parties do is irrelevant."

The Ulster Unionist candidate Hazel Legge feels she may surprise the doubters.

She is, in her own words, "born and bred" in east Belfast.

However, her power base is in Dundonald - a DUP stronghold.

Image caption News Letter Political Editor Sam McBride says east Belfast will be a political dogfight between the DUP and Alliance

She insists her selection was "absolutely not" designed to give the DUP an easy run.

"I am elected to the area so I already have a position on the council and I have been known in the community for some time," she said.

"I'm chair of a local board of governors and have been heavily involved in the community for many years.

"At the outset, when this election was called, both Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson said they didn't need the support of the Ulster Unionists to retain the seat for unionism.

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"That's the basis on which we are standing and we'll see on 8 June what the result is from the electorate."

It is going to be a close call, but Sam McBride, the News Letter's political editor, is tipping Gavin Robinson.

Image caption BBC News NI's Enda McClafferty and Victor - they do say dogs are man's best friend

He believes the timing of the election is crucial.

"One of the fascinating things here is how unionists react to the psychological blow of losing their majority at Stormont in the March election." said Mr McBride.

"One would think that would lead to a re-invigorated unionist vote especially in places like east Belfast where there is a chance unionism could lose another seat.

"If it doesn't happen, I think unionist leaders will be very alarmed because if something as significant as losing their majority at Stormont doesn't mobilise unionist voters, then nothing will."

The contest in east Belfast will be a political dogfight between the DUP and Alliance but the result won't rest with their voters.

The outcome is likely to be decided by supporters of other parties tactically voting and that is what makes it so hard to call.