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It's the final countdown to 2014 elections... and time to see how unionists will share the vote

With less than a week to go before the polls open, it is now the final countdown to when candidates learn whether the days and nights canvassing have been worthwhile.

European and local election candidates have been pushing leaflets and their luck on doorsteps throughout Northern Ireland before voting begins at 7am on Thursday 22 May.

Many will be looking at the turnout for these polls. Will combining the European election with the poll for the 11 new councils boost turnout or will rain stop play?

The other matter is what is called the 'share of the vote'. In particular, how the first preference votes stack up. While the European results will dominate the headlines, the local council elections will be equally – if not more – important.

Firstly the European elections. Ten candidates are running, representing (in alphabetical order) the Alliance Party, the DUP, the Green Party, NI21, the NI Conservatives, SDLP, Sinn Féin, TUV, UUP and UKIP.

The DUP leader has expressed concern over the number of unionist parties running potentially splitting the vote with the possibility of two nationalist MEPs being returned. The key point here is whether the UUP can hold onto their tenuous grasp of the final round of preferences, and what share each party can claim.

That share will be a bellwether for next year’s Westminster election and the  outcome of the Assembly poll in 2016. In many ways, next week's polls are as much about jockeying for position as they are about the reality on the ground.

But, the danger for many is to dismiss too easily the council elections, which will herald the biggest shake-up since 1973 in local government.

The reduction from 26 to 11 councils will not only – hopefully – reduce costs, it will also see a significant shift in powers from Stormont to the localities. In Monday's Belfast Telegraph, survey results will be published showing which areas the public believe are most important.

Preliminary results, however, show that of 11,500 who have completed the Belfast Telegraph/Chambré Public Affairs My Vote survey, the overwhelming majority welcomed the increase in council powers, but were not as emphatic when it came to the new councils raising rates willy nilly.

Equally the early results show that economic development for local businesses should be a priority for the councils.

Once the tranche of councillors have been elected they will operate for a shadow period of one year, to iron out any kinks and decide how to govern the larger areas.

For the electorate the challenge will be to get off the sofas and journey to the polling booths: that way they can have a say, rather than just complaining when things don't go their way. Thereafter, people may even want to do something radical and wild – civil engagement. Councillors might want to try that too.

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