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Move against Northern Ireland Protocol now unlikely, warns Brandon Lewis

Secretary of State’s comments may spell serious trouble for DUP leader

Jim Allister has called on unionists to send a “strong message” to the government at the polls today after the Secretary of State signalled it was stepping back from taking imminent movement on the protocol.

Brandon Lewis indicated on ITV’s Peston programme on Wednesday night that the government had pulled back from including plans in the Queen’s speech next week allowing it to suspend part of the protocol.

Coming just hours before polling stations opened for today’s Assembly election, his comments could spell serious trouble for DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Mr Allister said that past experience meant he wasn’t surprised by what the Secretary of State signalled.

“If the government is resiling again from action, then it underscores the need for unionist voters to respond strongly at the polls on Thursday and to reject the iniquitous protocol by voting TUV — No Sea Border,” he said.

“A rising TUV vote will be taken as the catalyst for the need for action, not words. Unionists need to maximise the pressure on the government.

“While others have flirted with ‘the best of both worlds’ nonsense and operated the Poots’ posts, TUV is the voice of unrelenting opposition to the protocol. There can be no misinterpretation of what a vote for TUV means.”

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The DUP has been approached for comment.

Sir Jeffrey’s party is battling to remain the largest at Stormont and to keep the position of First Minister. Opinion polls show Sinn Fein ahead and the party is also odds-on favourite with the bookies.

Turnout will be key in determining the make-up of the next Assembly. There are fears that the dull, low-key campaign could leave people unmotivated to vote.

There was a 65% turnout in the 2017 Assembly election in the wake of Sinn Fein crashing Stormont and Arlene Foster’s ‘crocodile’ comments. However, turnout at the election the previous year was significantly lower at 55%.

Some 606 polling stations across Northern Ireland open at 7am and close at 10pm. The count begins on Friday morning with the first results expected in the afternoon.

For the first time, voters attending polling stations will be advised to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“Please bring a mask. We’re trying to do everything that we can to provide as much protection,” said chief electoral officer Virginia McVea.

“There will be some masks available but it would be great if you could put a mask into your pocket. If you’re uncomfortable using the pencils in the polling booths, we will be cleaning them, but if you’re uncomfortable, bring your own pen or pencil,” she told the BBC.

The single transferable vote (STV) method is used in Assembly elections. Voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference by marking 1, 2, 3 and so on next to the names of candidates on a ballot paper. Voters have to bring forms of photographic identification to the polling station. These include a UK, Irish or EU passport; a UK, Irish or EEA driving licence; an electoral identity card’ or a Translink senior or 60+ SmartPass.

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