Foster pledges ‘positive vision’ as Assembly campaign begins

First Minister Arlene Foster with DUP candidates for the North Belfast, East Antrim and South Antrim constituencies as they submitted their nomination papers at the Electoral Office in Glengormley

First Minister Arlene Foster with DUP candidates for the North Belfast, East Antrim and South Antrim constituencies as they submitted their nomination papers at the Electoral Office in Glengormley

After weeks where the news headlines have been dominated by the EU referendum and then the Easter Rising centenary, the Assembly election campaign has finally got under way.

Candidates – including First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster – on Thursday began to formally submit their nomination papers and there has been a proliferation of posters over the last 48 hours in many constituencies.

Submitting her nomination papers along with Fermanagh and South Tyrone running mate Lord Morrow, Mrs Foster gave a broad indication of where the DUP’s campaign is likely to focus over the next five weeks.

Mrs Foster said that she had been “humbled” to have served as First Minister for almost three months and said that there had been “enormous progress” in Northern Ireland, adding: “I want to secure our gains and build a better future.”

In a hint that the DUP might not – as some commentators have claimed – run a negative campaign claiming that if voters don’t vote for them they might get Martin McGuinness as First Minister, Mrs Foster said that she would oversee a campaign setting out a “positive vision for Northern Ireland”.

However, despite the DUP’s significant nine-seat lead over Sinn Fein in the last Assembly, Mrs Foster warned that “this election will be very close”.

In six constituencies, Ulster Unionist candidates were also nominated on Thursday, including the former DUP councillor Jenny Palmer, who is standing in the DUP’s Lagan Valley stronghold.

TUV leader Jim Allister and North Antrim running mate Timothy Gaston will hand in their nomination papers on Friday morning in Ballymena.

Sinn Fein candidates across Belfast also handed in their nomination papers and began campaigning.

Based on recent electoral results, the party faces the prospect of losing a seat in its West Belfast heartland, where the left-wing People Before Profit candidate Gerry Carroll is likely to win a seat.

In all, voters will return 108 members of the Assembly when the polls open on May 5.

Six MLAs per constituency will be elected under the Single Transferable Vote system, meaning that voters can rank the candidates in order of their preference.

Unlike Westminster elections, there will be no overnight count.

Instead, counting of votes will begin on Friday, May 6, and continue into the Saturday. If there are recounts, it is possible that the count could go into the following week.