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Low-key Stormont election sees more focus on social and economic issues

Published 01/05/2016

Politicians are battling for seats at Stormont
Politicians are battling for seats at Stormont

Social and economic concerns have vied for prominence with traditional orange and green issues in a Stormont Assembly election campaign that has been relatively low key in comparison to some past battles.

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 Democratic Unionists were the biggest party in the last Assembly, with 38 seats, and new leader Arlene 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 placed particular onus on the race between her and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness for the first minister's job, claiming a republican in the post 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 downplayed 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 "ten 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.

Mr McGuinness has returned to his native Londonderry in a bid to snatch a seat from his main rival for nationalist votes, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). 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, 33, has promised to reinvigorate the party but has been forced to reject claims levelled by rivals that his manifesto is economically unsound.

The Ulster Unionists, which 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 offer 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 out 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 hard-line 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, People Before Profit are among other smaller parties hoping to secure a seat in Parliament Buildings when the new term starts.

Researcher on Northern Ireland elections Dr Peter Shirlow said he was not anticipating any major changes in the make-up of the next Assembly, claiming none of the four main parties were likely to make significant gains.

He said traditional parties were struggling to attract younger voters, claiming orange and green politics were increasingly irrelevant to their lives.

"Our largest political parties in Northern Ireland are not going anywhere electorally in terms of any significant growth in their voter base," he said.

The Liverpool University academic also said he expected a low turnout.

"I think it will be 'as you were' in terms of the Assembly, but the interesting thing will be the number of non voters," he added.

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