Sinn Fein hit by storm of anger in 'sectarian headcount' leaflet row
Sinn Fein is coming under increasing pressure to retract an election leaflet that uses a religious headcount to persuade voters to back its candidate Gerry Kelly.
As the race in North Belfast hots up between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the leaflet displays figures from the 2011 census showing a Catholic population in the constituency of 46.9% and a Protestant population of 45.6%.
It is accompanied by the tag line: "Make the change, make history."
The leaflet has been blasted by the DUP, UUP, SDLP, the Alliance Party and even by the former chairman of Sinn Fein at Queen's University.
Sean Fearon, who is the brother of Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon, described the leaflet as "an absolute disgrace". He said others within Sinn Fein were "equally appalled as I am".
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds - who is running against Mr Kelly in north Belfast - has challenged Sinn Fein to state whether it believes voting intentions can be predicted from census returns.
"Sinn Fein like to take about equality in public, but privately they make it clear that equality is nothing more than a Trojan horse to break unionists," he said.
"Publicly, Sinn Fein talk about challenging sectarianism, but then produce leaflets which rely on blatant sectarian headcounting.
"When confronted about their use of census figures instead of any electoral evidence Caral Ni Chuilin made the ludicrous claim that the Electoral Commission prevented them from using the results of previous elections.
"Having been forced to apologise for that deliberate misinformation Sinn Fein should now publicly step back from their sectarian electioneering in North Belfast." Mr Dodds pressed Sinn Fein to explain its actions.
"Some Sinn Fein activists have publicly distanced themselves from this kind of campaigning. The question is whether the leadership of Sinn Fein will continue to endorse the kind of lazy sectarianism which concludes that someone's voting preference can be assumed from their religious background," he said.
"If they do not believe this is an accurate guide, then we need to hear a clear explanation from Sinn Fein why they used the census figures. Michelle Gildernew may have told her election launch that 'Sinn Fein don't do sectarianism', but the facts speak for themselves."
Nuala McAllister of Alliance said there was "nowhere else in these islands where it would be acceptable to target people on the basis of their religion".
"The more that we talk about this divide, the more that we talk about this sectarian headcount, it just perpetuates the divide more."