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Campaigns step up a gear as the clock counts down

Northern Ireland's parties are gearing up for a last push for votes as the General Election campaign enters its final days.

The countdown to polling day this Thursday will witness a live televised leaders' debate tomorrow night on BBC NI.

The same day will also see the publication of eagerly-awaited Belfast Telegraph opinion poll results, focussing on voting intentions across the province's 18 constituencies.

With a hung Parliament a very real possibility, the results from Northern Ireland may well be much more keenly watched from Westminster than normal.

The campaign here has been relatively low key over the past month.

It sparked to life 10 days ago when Tory leader David Cameron said the size of Government here was “too big”.

Fighting back against claims of a cutbacks agenda, Mr Cameron said reshaping the local economy would be a long-term project, possibly taking up to 25 years.

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The Conservative Party chief is expected to hit the campaign trail here himself tomorrow, to rally support for candidates standing under his party's pact with the Ulster Unionists.

Meanwhile, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson has claimed any UUP MP would back the Tories “regardless of the consequences for Northern Ireland”.

He said: “In a hung parliament every MP will count. Northern Ireland cannot afford weak negotiators who will be whipped into line.”

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has challenged Sinn Fein over its abstentionist policy towards the Commons.

Highlighting the importance of Westminster on issues such as public spending allocations, she said: “So to the people who say Westminster is not important and that our MPs don’t need to go there — I say wrong on both counts. And I have two questions for these people.

“If you don’t think Westminster matters and you don’t intend to take your seats — then why are you even standing for election?

“And secondly, why should anyone vote for you?”

TUV leader Jim Allister has highlighted his party’s key pledges to the voters, including integrity in public office, full-time representation in Parliament, and moves to resist republicanism.

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