In the upcoming Westminster general election, Sinn Fein's South Belfast candidate Alex Maskey has withdrawn from the election.

The SDLP's Dr Alasdair McDonnell is currently the outgoing MP in the constituency.

Gerry Adams announced Sinn Fein's decision to pull Maskey from the election while canvassing in the constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

"This is a bold leadership initiative by Sinn Féin. It is about protecting and defending two nationalist seats," he said.

Adams felt that his decision would be "widely welcomed by nationalists."

McDonnell won by 1,200 votes in the South Belfast election in 2005. 

Maskey only polled 2,882 votes compared to McDonnell's 10,330 in 2005.

There are two Unionist candidates in South Belfast Jimmy Spratt (DUP) AND Paula Bradshaw (UUP and Tory alliance), Spratt managed to poll 9,104 in the last election.

It is hoped that by withdrawing Maskey, a nationalist seat will be safeguarded against the Unionists. 

It has transpired that Spratt had contacted Bradshaw only 90 minutes before nominations closed yesterday, asking her to withdraw her nomination in South Belfast.

Bradshaw and the UUP leader Sir Reg Empey refused to withdraw the UUP nomination.

“Jimmy Spratt is the lead unionist candidate in South Belfast; he was only 1,200 votes behind Alasdair McDonnell the last time. This was a genuine attempt to agree a single unionist candidate and was in the interests of unionism,” a DUP spokesperson told the Irish Times.

Empey refuted the offer saying it was "outrageous."

"It shows contempt for the electorate. The electorate choose their representatives. Can you imagine someone from Fianna Fáil trying to replace one of their members by someone from Fine Gael or Labour? Where would we end up if we got into that sort of thing? It is all very grubby," said Empey.

Empey countered the DUP's offer by asking Spratt to step down and allow Bradshaw to solely contest for the seat.

Although McDonnell's chances of holding the seat have increased, the SDLP has expressed little gratitude.

McDonnell said Maskey's withdrawal was a "gimmick" and SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said the move was "nothing more than a cynical election stunt and sectarian gimmick motivated by selfish interests."

McDonnell said the move was made to pressurize SDLP supporters in Fermanagh/South Tyrone to vote for Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew rather than the SDLP's Fearghal McKinney.

"Sinn Féin’s decision is designed to do two things – sectarianize the election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and ensure that Alasdair McDonnell, an excellent cross community MP, loses his seat,” said Ritchie.