Voting is underway in the European Parliamentary elections at polling stations across the North and is being described as “slow”.
The votes cast will be validated in Belfast on Sunday before counting starts, along with the votes in the 26 Counties, on Monday morning. The first results in the Euro elections are expected by mid afternoon on Monday.
There is a fight on to top the poll in the election in the North, as well as a battle for third place. Sinn Féin’s Bairbre de Brun could top the poll for the first time, underlining the party’s claim as the largest in the North. Meanwhile the SDLP’s Alban Maginnis could win a historic second seat of nationalists -- and under the ‘single transferable vote’, both aspirations could become a reality.
Among unionists, much will depend on how the votes split among the various unionist groups.
In an apparently planned exodus, three DUP councillors defected to their political rivals in the week before the election.
Belfast councillor John Kirkpatrick followed two defections on Monday - Dungannon and South Tyrone councillor Harry Greenaway, who joined the Ulster Unionists, and Ballymena councillor Deirdre Nelson, who joined the Conservatives.
The move is a boost to Reg Empey’s Ulster Unionist Party and its new alliance with the Conservative Party as ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists: New Force’ (UCUNF).
Last month, the party’s sole Westminster MP Sylvia Hermon dealt the new alliance a blow when she said she would not contest her seat under that banner.
The DUP has also suffered controversy in recent weeks. In awave of revelations about political expenses and income, it emerged that DUP leader Peter Robinson, his wife Irene and family draw a collective income of about a million pounds sterling per year from politics.
The wealth of the so-called “Swish Family Robinson” is a result of the MPs also earning an income as members of the Stormont Assembly, employing family members as staff and making large expense claims.
In response to the controversy, Mr Robinson has said members of his party will now have to choose between the Belfast Assembly and the Westminster parliament. However, the controversy is said to have fuelled support for ultra hardline unionist and former DUP MEP Jim Allister.
Allister, fightng to hold his seat under the banner of his new political party, Traditional Unionist Voice, said public trust in politicians had been “rocked to its core”.
“In Northern Ireland the added dimensions of double-jobbing and family-dynasty building, has added to the public contempt,” he said.
“Paying the weekly grocery bill is a huge struggle for many, so when extravagance, at the public expense, is flaunted, it offends right-thinking people.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has expressed deep concern over what he said was “the growing interference by the Electoral Office in the exercise of peoples right to vote”.
Mr Adams said that many eligible and registered voters are being arbitrarily refused their right to vote.
The refusals focus primarily on legitimate postal and proxy applications from mainly nationalist and republican areas.
Mr Adams called on everyone concerned about the Electoral Office’s denial of the democratic franchise to urgently seek legal representation.
“The latest information which has emerged during canvassing is extremely serious. It fits into a consistent pattern of dubious practices, irregular processes and flawed procedures by the Electoral Office which are undermining the democratic process.”
Among the complaints made in recent weeks were: The rejection of 15,900 applications made by people who wished to join the electoral register last year; consistent challenges against the eligibility of voters in large families, including public representatives such as Sinn Féin councillor Terry Hearty; and, reduced provisions for access to Electoral Office ID clinics (which had previously been discharged efficiently by the Electoral Commission).
Sinn Féin Assembly member for West Belfast, Fra McCann also slammed the Electoral Office for moving a number of voters living on the nationalist Springfield Road to a polling station on the loyalist Ballygomartin Road.
“This is the latest move by the Electoral Office which has seen voters in West Belfast being treated with complete disdain but what is really striking is that it happens two days before an election,” he said.
“This is gross incompetence. For the Electoral Office to claim that they are encouraging and enabling people to get their democratic right to vote is an absolute nonsense. The Electoral Office need to contact the Springfield Road residents directly and today and address this issue with the utmost of urgency.”
MP’S CARS ATTACKED
Two cars were set on fire at the home of Sinn Féin MP for Newry & Armagh in an eve-of-election attack last night. The party blamed republican dissidents for being behind the incident, which caused Mr Murphy to evacuate his home with his family. His home received scorch damage in the a attack.
“This was a cowardly attack on my family home. While there was damage to two cars and a risk that the house would be set alight thankfully no one was injured.
“I want to pay tribute to the response of the Fire Service who ensured that the house did not catch fire. I will not be deflected from representing the needs of local people.”