A pro-Remain voting arrangement has been blasted as a “nationalist pact” in what is expected to be one of the most watched election races in Northern Ireland.
There is all to play for in South Belfast where the DUP appears to be at its most vulnerable against an SDLP team determined to win back the seat it lost in 2017 and make a return to Westminster.
The constituency is set to see one of the tightest fought contests, between the incumbent Emma Little-Pengelly, of the DUP, and Claire Hanna, of the SDLP.
But cooperation between pro-Remain parties which saw Sinn Fein and the Green Party step aside for Ms Hanna appears to have handed the Assembly Member the edge.
In addition to being at opposite ends of the spectrum on Brexit, the pair also strongly differ on abortion and the constitutional question.
The race has at times turned nasty, with a poster erected targeting Ms Hanna over Sinn Fein support, and her election launch targeted by anti-abortion campaigners.
Ms Little-Pengelly has said she has been “horrendously trolled” on social media and criticised Twitter for being too slow to act.
Meanwhile, the centrist Alliance Party has insisted it is in fact a three-horse race, with its candidate, Paula Bradshaw, also in contention following a strong showing for the party at the local government election earlier this year.
South Belfast saw one of the highest Remain votes (68%) in the UK in the Brexit referendum.
The constituency has the most ethnically diverse population in Northern Ireland, and also includes Queen’s University, some of the wealthiest areas in the region, and farmers in Carryduff.
It was held by the Ulster Unionist Party until 2005 when it was won by the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell and held until Ms Little-Pengelly won the seat in 2017 with a slim majority of just under 2,000 votes.
While there was no formal unionist electoral pact in 2017, the halving of the usual Ulster Unionist vote suggests many strategically lent their vote to Ms Little-Pengelly to oust Mr McDonnell.
This year the question is how many of the 9,000 votes which Sinn Fein and the Greens received between them in 2017 will transfer to Ms Hanna.
Ms Hanna said it was not a pact, saying instead that a number of pro-Remain parties “made a number of unilateral decisions that do not mirror each other in other constituencies”.
Ms Little-Pengelly questioned how it could be a pro-Remain move, when another pro-Remain candidate – Ms Bradshaw – was on the ballot paper.
“I think people see it for what it is, it’s not a pro-Remain pact because what we do have is a nationalist candidate standing for nationalism and republicanism and that’s Claire Hanna,” she said.
“I think it’s very difficult for the SDLP to argue this is a pact about Remain when you have, of course, other Remain candidates on the ballot paper.
“What that pact, or agreement – informal or whatever way they want to describe it – between Sinn Fein and the SDLP is to get a nationalist MP in North Belfast, a nationalist MP who will not even take his seat, a republican who will not represent North Belfast, and in return for that Sinn Fein have pulled out to support Claire Hanna.”
Ms Hanna disputed these claims.
“So many people don’t think exclusively in those terms, and while, yeah, absolutely people have strong views in terms of the constitution, it is about Brexit,” she said.
“But I do know that for months people have said to me ‘We did it a different way in 2017, we all ploughed our own furrow and got 10 DUP MPs that have had a very malign effect on our lives’ and I think there was a desire there, when we are dealing with the really archaic first-past-the-post system, to facilitate people making an easier decision.”
Ms Bradshaw said many people have told her on the campaign trail that they do not feel they have been properly represented at Westminster due to the DUP’s position on Brexit.
“They feel, we as Northern Ireland people who voted Remain, have not had our concerns raised and listened to,” she said.
“More and more people are coming into the centre ground, they are fed up with green and orange politics and we are seeing a great surge in our support.”
The other candidates running for the South Belfast seat are Michael Henderson, for the Ulster Unionist Party, and Chris McHugh, for Aontu.