Parties make final push for votes ahead of assembly elections

An electoral office of Northern Ireland worker helps store ballot boxes ready for distribution for tomorrows election vote at an election centre in Co Antrim
An electoral office of Northern Ireland worker helps store ballot boxes ready for distribution for tomorrows election vote at an election centre in Co Antrim

Political leaders in Northern Ireland have made their final pitch for votes ahead of the Assembly election.

The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein are again likely to emerge as the two largest parties on their respective sides of the unionist/nationalist political divide after polls close on Thursday night.

Recently appointed DUP leader Arlene Foster has placed particular onus on seeing off the challenge of Sinn Fein veteran Martin McGuinness in the race to see which one of them takes the first minister’s job ahead of the deputy first minister’s job.

In her eve of poll message, Mrs Foster insisted the outcome of the election was not a foregone conclusion.

“Such complacency would be a real danger for unionism,” said the outgoing first minister. “Every vote, and every transfer will matter.”

She added: “The role of first minister has huge symbolic significance at home and abroad. Of course in our system of government we need to work with other parties to get things done, but it is essential that we can negotiate with them from a position of strength.”

Long-time deputy first minister Mr McGuinness said Sinn Fein would deliver “progress and change” in the new mandate.

“In the Assembly Sinn Fein worked hard, creating jobs, reducing unemployment, protecting essential public services and securing more than £500 million to support those most in need,” he said.

“We need a strong, positive and experienced Sinn Fein team in the Assembly to build on that progress. I am asking you to support Sinn Fein tomorrow so that we can deliver our programme of progressive policies - to grow the economy, deliver prosperity and protect the rights of all our citizens.”

After a relatively low key campaign, which has seen social and economic feature more prominently than in previous electoral races, the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party face an uphill battle to break the DUP/Sinn Fein grip on power at Stormont.

When all 108 seats have been filled and talks begin in Belfast to shape the next coalition executive’s programme for government, the smaller parties are set to face a choice between re-entering the powersharing administration as junior partners or taking up the newly established option of forming an official opposition.

With such a muted campaign, all eyes will be on the turnout figure. The percentage of voters casting a ballot in Assembly elections has been in steady decline over the last two decades. It was 54.5% in 2011.

Across Northern Ireland, election officials were transporting 1,380 ballot boxes to 619 polling stations on Wednesday.

At the most isolated, on Rathlin Island off the north coast, polling station manager Teresa McCurdy travelled to the mainland on the ferry on Wednesday morning to pick up a box.

The count for the 18 constituencies will be conducted through Friday and Saturday at eight centres across the region. The first results are expected on Friday afternoon with the final outcome not expected until 24 hours later.

In a campaign short on incident or controversy, the region’s contentious ban on gay marriage; its strict abortion laws; health and education spending; business tax rates; and the implications of Brexit have been some of the main themes to feature in hustings that, in previous years, would have been dominated by constitutional and security matters.

The DUP was the biggest party in the last Assembly, with 38 seats, and Mrs Foster is keen to at least maintain the position established by her retired predecessor Peter Robinson.

Along with her “five-point plan” to deliver a “safer and stronger” Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster has claimed a republican in the First Minister’s role would spell bad news for the region.

It would require a significant electoral turnaround for Sinn Fein, which won 29 seats in 2011, to topple the DUP as the largest party and most pundits believe it highly unlikely. Mr McGuinness, for his part, has played down the importance of the job title, given both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s jobs wield the same authority.

A more significant target for Sinn Fein, which has outlined its own “10-point plan” to the electorate, might be the 30 seats that would hand it the strength to solely veto Assembly legislation with the use of the much-maligned “petition of concern” voting mechanism.

It is not yet clear what impact, if any, this week’s Twitter furore involving Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams will have on the party’s vote.

Mr Adams, who is an elected representative in the Republic of Ireland and is not running in Thursday’s poll, apologised on Monday after using the N-word in a tweet about the film Django Unchained in which he tried to draw a parallel between the experiences of African- American slaves and Irish nationalists.

The election is the first real test for new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and he has vowed to reverse the party’s post-Good Friday Agreement decline.

The SDLP won 14 seats in 2011. Mr Eastwood, who at 33 is by some way the youngest leader of any of the main parties, has been forced to reject claims levelled by rivals that his manifesto is economically unsound.

The Ulster Unionists, who have also seen their support base ebb away in the years since the 1998 peace accord, insist they are on the comeback trail. Buoyed by gaining two Westminster seats last year, leader Mike Nesbitt, a former TV presenter, has claimed the UUP offers a real alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein partnership that has led Stormont for the last nine years.

But before the party can build on the 16 seats it won in 2011, it will have to regain three seats it lost due to internal spats during the course of the last Assembly term.

The UUP walked out of the Stormont Executive last year amid a political crisis over an IRA-linked murder in Belfast. Mr Nesbitt has signalled a willingness to return to government, if the conditions are right, but, like the SDLP, he has also made clear he is not scared of going into what would be the first officially designated opposition since devolution returned to the region.

The cross-community Alliance Party is hoping to build on the eight seats it won last time and the poll should deliver a Stormont return to the Assembly chamber for its high-profile deputy leader and former MP Naomi Long.

The party has again put reconciliation and tackling division at the heart of its manifesto pledges, vowing to promote the education of Catholic and Protestant children together in integrated schools and support shared neighbourhoods. However, it still faces quite a challenge to make significant breakthroughs beyond urbanised areas in the east of Northern Ireland.

Leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) Jim Allister will hope to regain his party’s solitary seat from 2011, and bring some colleagues in with him.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew is also hoping for an Assembly return with a pledge to cut waste across all aspects of Stormont governance.

Ukip, the Progressive Unionist Party, and People Before Profit are among other smaller parties hoping to secure a seat in Parliament Buildings when the new term starts.