Belfast Telegraph

Hours before Northern Ireland election called battle lines already being drawn as parties take to streets

By Suzanne Breen

An Assembly election that many of Northern Ireland's political parties don't want is due to be called today at 5pm by the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire.

He is expected to announce that the election, which will cost £5m, will be held in around six weeks' time - with February 23 or March 2 the most likely dates.

Local political parties, that never expected to be preparing for a second Stormont poll in the space of 10 months, are now drafting new campaign literature and some have already begun electioneering.

Arlene Foster - along with DUP chairman Lord Morrow and other MLAs - attended an event in Brookeborough Orange Hall in Fermanagh on Saturday night.

Sinn Fein held a selection convention in the Felons Club in west Belfast yesterday with the party choosing Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' as its election anthem.

The SDLP began canvassing in the south of the city, while Alliance teams hit the streets of South and East Belfast, Lagan Valley, East Antrim and North Down at the weekend.

Sinn Fein has already chosen its candidates for many of the 18 constituencies.

A fascinating battle will take place in West Belfast, where the party's four MLAs - Pat Sheehan, Alex Maskey, Fra McCann and Orlaithí Flynn - seem set to go head-to-head with two People Before Profit (PBP) candidates.

Gerry Carroll's poll-topping performance has encouraged the party to have a running-mate join him on the ballot paper.

That move is likely to be announced following a PBP election meeting tonight.

The party is also expected to declare that it's contesting all four Belfast constituencies for the first time, in what it calls a "once in a lifetime election".

The current Assembly is meeting for what is anticipated to be its final session today to debate DUP proposals on capping Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) payments and on mitigating the 'bedroom tax'.

Mairtin O Muilleoir yesterday predicted that Sinn Fein would have "a very good election".

He said: "The republican electorate is up for the challenge.

"People are looking for an opportunity to say they have zero tolerance when it comes to corruption, zero tolerance to bigotry, and that they want respect and equality.

"That is what will be on Sinn Fein's ballot paper."

The Finance Minister demanded that the DUP's Simon Hamilton publish the names of RHI beneficiaries now.

"If the Economy Minister wants to build confidence in the solution he's bringing forward, then he should publish those names. We have a right to know who benefited from this scheme.

"I said (before) that I would be honest with the public about the RHI debacle and the proposal coming forward.

"It's important to say now it is not a zero cost solution.

"It is an interim solution.

"I have said we won't endorse it if it doesn't stack up financially and legally, and if it doesn't go after those who have abused the system."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said last night: "Our party isn't to blame for the snap election called as a result of the DUP's and Sinn Fein's mess.

"But, unlike some, we are not running scared of an election.

"We will be facing the people confident - and offering the electorate an alternative to the secrecy, corruption and cronyism that they are sick of at Stormont."

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said: "The SDLP team in South Belfast at the weekend found many people frustrated that an election is being called. They have no confidence that it will solve anything.

"However, while some are switched off, others are saying that they're more motivated to vote now than they have been in years."

TUV leader Jim Allister said that we were at a seminal point in our history.

"Those who have chosen to believe the lie that Sinn Fein wants to make Northern Ireland work, have had a rude awakening over the past few days," he said.

"Sinn Fein will be seeking further concessions after the election, when there is nothing more for unionists to give."

The Secretary of State must call a fresh election if the DUP and Sinn Fein can't reach agreement by the 5pm deadline today - exactly a week after Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister.

Mr Brokenshire stressed yesterday that he was not considering alternatives to devolution.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, he wouldn't be drawn on the prospect of direct rule or joint authority with Dublin, but he said: "I'm not contemplating any alternatives to devolved government in Northern Ireland. My responsibility is to see that we are working with each of the parties to ensure that we are not looking at greater division."

He expressed concern that an election campaign would be "divisive" and increase the "distance between the parties".

And he stressed that there were only three weeks after an election for an Executive to be formed.

He added: "What I'm focused on is that we maintain the institutions. It's important that we are working together to see that people are focused on the great opportunities for Northern Ireland."

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