With Easter over the election race for the European Parliament is set to step up a gear.
While polling day is still seven weeks away, the main parties are increasing their focus on the forthcoming three-seat battle.
Attention will centre on the DUP’s determination to remove former colleague Jim Allister and the prospect of a three-way-unionist split allowing Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun to top the poll.
DUP chiefs appear more concerned about growing apathy creating a large ‘stay at home’ factor than the potential for Mr Allister keeping Diane Dodds out.
Apathy is also on the increase — more than 130,000 fewer voters turned out last time in 2004 compared to the turnout in 1999.
However, one party’s internal research is believed to indicate that sitting tenant Allister could acquire a total of 48,000 votes, which would still prove insufficient to retain his seat.
Depending on how transfers fall various scenarios open up — including the SDLP’s Alban Maginness regaining former party leader John Hume’s old seat at the expense of veteran Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson.
The election will also provide the first test of the UUP’s new forged links with the Conservatives, who despite individual successes have rarely performed consistently well in the province. At the last Euro poll Conservatives backed independent candidate John Gilliland, the then outgoing President of the Ulster Farmers Union, who also had Alliance support.
Sinn Fein’s interest may be to some extent diverted by the poll in the Republic following the party’s setback in the last general election and the chance of leading ‘figure-of-the-future‘ Mary Lou MacDonald losing her seat in greater Dublin.
The SDLP will struggle to get its vote out, after previous candidate Martin Morgan slipped well behind Nicholson following the second count.
One tactic the DUP seems to be favouring is attempting to ignore attacks from the Allister camp, refusing to respond to statements. “Why should we give him the oxygen of credibility?” one source said.
Yesterday Mrs Dodds pledged her party was working to change the definition of ‘victim’, which in part underpinned the now ditched Eames-Bradley £12,000 payment proposal.
She said legislation will be brought before the Assembly “very soon” since it has been passed to the Bill Office and is at an advanced stage — though it is unlikely to receive cross-community support.
Allister, meanwhile, continues to target the Stormont Executive, his latest broadside claiming little has resulted from the Emerald Fund and the international investment conference in Belfast a year ago.
Yet there was no response yesterday to Mr Allister’s onslaught which also included his trademark withering criticism that an Executive “which thinks delivery is getting the winter fuel allowance out by Easter is not one imbued by much urgency”.
Mr Nicholson, meanwhile, was more exercised yesterday about websites and reported bank accounts being used to promote the activities of dissident republican groups.
He said he was writing to the US Consulate in Belfast seeking assurances and guarantees that websites promoting terrorism will be closed as soon as they are detected and reported.