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Unionism's Bermuda Triangle

Mark Devenport | 14:39 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

The corner of the Belmont and Holywood Roads in East Belfast is the equivalent of unionism's Bermuda Triangle. A journalist or a candidate could get sucked in there and never come out. The same small area includes the DUP HQ, the UUP office where all election news conferences are held and Jim Allister's campaign base. This morning we started off at a DUP breakfast at the Park Avenue hotel, crossed the road to get a reaction clip from the UUP's Mike Nesbitt then zigzagged around the corner for the TUV's manifesto launch.

Of course I am meant to be impartial between all of these events, but I am prepared to say that if I were to be sucked into the triangle without hope of escape I would probably hope to be washed ashore at Bennett's coffee shop, right in the middle of the vortex. It always does a good latte.

The DUP leader told us that whilst the murder of Ronan Kerr was the major issue on the doorsteps last week, the next topic was the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. The DUP claim they aren't raising this themselves, but voters are expressing their concerns. This sounds like a subtle formulation which puts the issue into the public discourse, even though the bookies seem not to rate the chances of Sinn Fein grabbing the top spot.

Over at the UUP, Mike Nesbitt said voters weren't raising the First Minister question, describing it as a red herring. The election, he maintained, was being fought about the economy, jobs, health provision and education.

The TUV launched their manifesto this morning. On the First Minister question, Jim Allister challenged Peter Robinson not to nominate a candidate for Deputy First Minister if Sinn Fein come out on top. This scheme for scuppering Martin McGuinness's chances of becoming First Minister was raised on Inside Politics and this blog back in February. At that stage Peter Robinson denied this was one of those "clever devices" which he had up his sleeve, insisting his only stratagem is to ensure the DUP remain the largest party.

During a typically pugnacious performance Mr Allister denounced the Stormont system as undemocratic and castigated the Stormont politicians for wasting the public's money. His economics spokesman David Vance described Owen Paterson's support for cutting corporation tax as a "dangerous gamble" which wasn't being tried in England. The TUV manifesto makes it clear that the party opposes harmonising the tax across the border for political as well as economic reasons.

And as I pointed out in my tweets, there were a few spirited exchanges between Mr Allister and the assembled hacks, which included him accusing one of us of sycophancy and another of being a "tweeting freak". Even in election campaigns, Mr Allister believes attack is the best form of defence.

Due to my desire to rush out and enjoy the April sunshine yesterday afternoon, I didn't get writing about this weekend's Inside Politics. If you missed it you can listen again to the programme here. My lead interview was with the UUP leader Tom Elliott. Mr Elliott began the week saying Sinn Fein could do more in terms of giving information on the dissidents. But he used Sunday's interview to welcome the arms find in Coalisland, which he assumed might have been the result of information being provided by mainstream republicans.

We also talked about the Altnagelvin radiotherapy centre, the UUP's ideas on opposition and Mr Elliott's relationship with the Conservatives. Eight days ago the local Conservatives released a statement in which they talked about expanding "so that we are in a position to select strong Conservative candidates for all future elections." But Mr Elliott denied that this signalled the end of his party's link with the Tories - he pointed out that Jim Nicholson continue to serve as part of the Conservative grouping in Europe and, should the UUP get any MPs elected in the future, they will still consider having a relationship with the Tories at Westminster.

On Inside Politics we are talking to all the parties standing in three or more constituencies - the same criteria applied to getting a party election broadcast. This weekend I interviewed two very contrasting smaller parties - on the left of the spectrum Eamon McCann denied the People Before Profit alliance is a "front" for the Socialist Workers Party, insisting it was a broad attempt to give discontented voters a voice. Although Mr McCann's political views don't have much in common with those of the TUV's David Vance, he shares Mr Vance's opposition to the proposed cut in corporation tax describing the notion that this might kick start the economy as "nonsense", designed to transfer resources from the poor to the rich.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from PBP, my final interviewee was Nick Griffin, the leader of the right wing BNP. This is the first intervention by the BNP in a Stormont Assembly election. After the Revenue and Customs dismissed seven Belfast based staff for discriminating against people from ethnic minorities by altering their records to deprive them of benefits, Ann Cooper - who has now been named as the BNP's East Belfast candidate - tweeted that the staff concerned deserved a medal and she was sorry they had been caught.

Mr Griffin didn't back away from Ms Cooper's comments, maintaining that too much money was being paid to those who he described as "bogus asylum seekers and foreign spongers" and justifying the staff's illegal actions as part of Northern Ireland people's "long tradition of standing up to the government."

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