Northern Ireland party leaders issue eve-of-poll messages

Northern Ireland’s political leaders have issued eve-of-poll messages ahead of a General Election that will involve several constituency battles that remain too close to call.

A total of 136 candidates are standing in the region’s 18 constituencies.

All eyes will be on the race for the greatest number of seats, with the potential of Sinn Fein cementing its position as the largest party in Northern Ireland, having secured the most seats in recent Assembly and local council polls.

Sinn Fein, which ran a relatively low-key campaign, could secure top spot by retaining the seven seats it already holds, if the DUP drops down from the eight seats it won in 2019.

While most of the republican party’s seats are safe bets, it will face the usual arm wrestle to hold off the challenge of unionists in the ever-close Fermanagh and South Tyrone race.

In that constituency, former RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, who led nurses across the UK in strike action last year, is up against Ulster Unionist councillor Diana Armstrong.

General Election campaign 2024
First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA).

The DUP is under pressure in a number of constituencies, most significantly in East Belfast where its leader Gavin Robinson is involved in a high-stakes contest with the Alliance Party leader Naomi Long.

Mr Robinson’s elevation to the leadership of his party came after the DUP suffered a seismic shock when former leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit after he was charged with a range of historical sexual offences in March – charges he denies.

Apart from the sudden departure of Donaldson from the political stage, the DUP has also been under pressure from unionist rivals amid claims it oversold a Government package of measures on post-Brexit trading arrangements that the party used to justify the end of its two-year boycott on devolution at Stormont in January.

Defeat for Mr Robinson would surely raise questions about his fledgling leadership of the DUP; while a loss for Ms Long would prompt some to ask whether the Alliance Party’s surge of recent years has begun to subside.

The cross-community Alliance Party is walking a tight rope between having a really good night or a very disappointing one.

It is involved in three razor edge fights, including East Belfast, where it is in serious contention for seats.

Politics Election
DUP leader Gavin Robinson (Niall Carson/PA)

The party goes into the election with one seat, deputy leader Stephen Farry’s in North Down and is also hoping that Ms Long prevails in East Belfast and Sorcha Eastwood defeats the DUP in Lagan Valley, in the seat vacated by long-standing MP Donaldson.

While three victories could be secured; three losses would sting heavily for a party that has been on the electoral march in recent years.

The Ulster Unionists were without an MP in the last parliament and the party is convinced that South Antrim represents its best opportunity of a return to the green benches at Westminster.

Former UUP leader Robin Swann, whose profile soared when he led Northern Ireland’s fight against the Covid pandemic as Stormont health minister, is trying to win that seat from the DUP’s Paul Girvan.

Success for the SDLP would be the retention of the two seats held in the last parliament by its leader Colum Eastwood and deputy leader Claire Hanna.

General Election campaign 2024
Alliance leader Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA).

Both are tipped for victory – in Foyle and South Belfast and Mid Down respectively – albeit with the prospect of returning with reduced majorities.

The TUV, which is an arch critic of the DUP’s decision to drop its protest boycott on devolution, did not stand in the last election.

While its entry into the fray this time round is highly unlikely to deliver it any seats, the votes it could potentially take from DUP candidates could have major implications in some of the closest battleground seats.

However, the TUV campaign suffered a major blow last month when Reform UK leader Nigel Farage personally endorsed two DUP election candidates, despite his party having an official electoral alliance with the TUV in Northern Ireland.

That has led to a highly usually situation in Mr Allister’s own North Antrim constituency, where he is running on a joint TUV-Reform UK platform, even though Mr Farage has personally backed the DUP candidate in that area, Ian Paisley.

In her eve of poll message, Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill said a vote for her party would bring “positive change”.

General Election campaign 2024
UUP leader Doug Beattie (Liam McBurney/PA).

“Change will only be delivered in the north by working together in the Executive and Assembly, but this election is our chance to send a clear message about the future we want,” she said.

“I am asking voters to join us in our journey towards a better future, to endorse our vision by returning the strongest Sinn Fein team.

“It is clear that people want positive change, and I would urge people to support progressive candidates in areas where Sinn Fein are not standing (four seats), to maximise the number of progressive MPs.”

Mr Robinson urged people to use their vote wisely, as he emphasised that the election would help shape the future direction of Northern Ireland.

General Election campaign 2024
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (Liam McBurney/PA).

In a clear reference to his TUV rivals, he said: “Don’t listen to those who cannot win in this election. By supporting the unionist candidates that can win you ensure there is the strongest voice and the strongest team for you in parliament. Only the DUP can ensure there is a strong team of pro-Union MPs in Westminster to stand up and speak out for you on the issues that matter.

“Some people can only see problems, but we are proud of our strong record of standing up for you and getting things done.”

He added: “Tomorrow you have one vote. Use it wisely.  Don’t be lulled into voting for candidates that can’t win and waking up on Friday morning to a nightmare scenario where the unionist vote has been divided and non-unionists have won seats.”

Ms Long said her party was leading change.

“Alliance has fought this campaign on our platform of leading change, showcasing responsible leadership and trustworthiness in our dealings,” she said.

“We are uniquely positioned as the key challengers in a number of constituencies, which has been backed by polls and pundits across the entirety of the election campaign.”

She said if Alliance gained seats, voters would get “positive, progressive representatives who are leading change and seeking equality across our society”.

General Election campaign 2024
TUV leader Jim Allister (Liam McBurney/PA).

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie posted a direct message to voters on social media.

“You have one vote, on that one day, with one chance to create change, change by voting for an MP who will be effective in Westminster, who will be visible in Westminster,” he said.

“So when you go to the polls tomorrow, really think about what’s good for you, for your family, for Northern Ireland, for all our people. I believe it’s by voting for an Ulster Unionist Party candidate.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood emphasised the importance of voting for MPs who take their seat at Westminster, contrasting his party with Sinn Fein’s long-standing abstentionist stance.

“Everyone wants and deserves change,” he said.

“That’s what you get from SDLP MPs.

“Over the last five years Claire and I have demonstrated how we can deliver for people using the power of a seat at Westminster.

“And we’ve already secured commitments from a new government to repeal the toxic Tory legacy act.

“While others leave their seats empty, we turn up for the people we represent and make our voice heard.”

Mr Allister accused the DUP of hoodwinking unionists on the Government deal on post-Brexit trade.

“Vote instead for the party which has told you the truth from the beginning about the (Northern Ireland) Protocol, TUV. We have not faltered. We have not wilted on this fundamental issue,” he said.

“Strengthen my hand in resisting the dismantling of our Union by voting TUV on Thursday. Be strong, not used. Vote TUV, the party you can trust.”