Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams tonight urged unionist voters to vote for his party in the Belfast Assembly Election on November 26.
As Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble challenged his main rival Ian Paisley to a television debate, Mr Adams addressed the issue of transfers between parties under the proportional representation system.
In a surprise appeal to unionist voters, the West Belfast MP said: ``It might seem a sort of a quantum leap for them to consider voting for republicans.
``But those unionists who live in deprived areas and economically disadvantaged areas, what value is the Union for them?
``Those unionists who think there is going to be a united Ireland anyway, why don't they endorse what we are doing in terms of the work that is being done across a range of issues - the seismic shifts, the quantum leaps, the imaginative initiatives which have come from republicans?
``So rather than be a spectator in some internal unionist debate or absence of a debate, we are in there pitching for pro-Good Friday Agreement votes from all the parties and also appealing above and beyond the Agreement for people to vote republican and to vote for a united Ireland.''
The former SDLP Deputy Leader Seamus Mallon yesterday urged unionists who support the five-year-old Good Friday Agreement to support his party.
The veteran SDLP figure said his party was vying with the anti-Agreement DUP for the last seat in a number of constituencies.
He declared: ``I ask, unashamedly, pro-Agreement unionists in those areas to transfer to SDLP candidates so we can create an executive and make political progress.''
South Belfast Sinn Fein Representative Alex Maskey said that Mallon's comments were an act of desperation and ``an acknowledgement by the SDLP that Sinn Fein has the support of the majority of nationalists in this election''.
Cllr. Maskey said: ``Sinn Fein's position is to ask for votes for Sinn Fein candidates and beyond that for people to transfer to other pro-Agreement candidates in order of their own preference.
``A number weeks ago in advance of the election, Gerry Adams proposed a pro-Agreement transfer pact to [SDLP leader] Mark Durkan. The SDLP rejected this.
``The SDLP's appeal for unionists to vote for them is not, as alleged, about protecting the Good Friday Agreement. It is about protecting the SDLP and is a further sign of a party in crisis.
``The SDLP position is an acknowledgement that Sinn Fein has the support of the majority of nationalists in this election.''
Mr Adams dismissed as nonsense claims from the SDLP that the battle was between them and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party in key consistuencies.
And he accused the DUP of ``engaging in a huge con trick'' by suggesting it could ould renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP was also criticised by David Trimble, who claimed there were inconsistencies in Paisley's claim that they would not sit in government with Sinn Fein.
``Dr Paisley is running around the countryside avoiding studios, avoiding debate, avoiding participating with others,'' Mr Trimble said.
``So here's a challenge.
``I have participated in debates. I have been dealing with monkeys while the organ grinder is elsewhere. Now I want to have a proper debate at leadership level.''
The DUP's Nigel Dodds claimed it was the tactic of a leader who knew his party was losing the election.
``Mr Trimble has very little support out on the ground and within his own party,'' the North Belfast MP retorted.
``He surrounds himself with nodding dogs which he can't even allow on TV.''
PRO VS ANTI
The pro-Agreement parties have brushed off the latest poll suggesting a decline in support for the peace accord. According to the opinion poll, 61 per cent of Protestants and 33 per cent of Catholics want the Agreement renegotiated. A further 18 percent of Protestants and 6 percent of Catholics said it should be discarded entirely.
But Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness has predicted that there will be over 70 Assembly members, out of a total of 108, who will be clearly pro-agreement in the new assembly.
Mr McGuinness indicated that there were many people within nationalism, republicanism, and inside the pro-agreement section of unionism who do understand the importance of voting in the election and transferring votes.
He said that ``people do understand there is an opportunity for pro-agreement parties sticking together to put the DUP in their place''.
Mr McGuinness said Sinn Fein's message to their electorate was to maximise the nationalist and republican vote.
They said that education and health remain a priority for Sinn Fein and the party will be seeking these departments once again in the new assembly.
In a joint statement, they said: ``It is our belief that we will be in a position to achieve either the first or deputy first minister. In addition to this we want to continue the work that we started in Education and Health and will be seeking these Departments once again in the new Assembly.''
He declined to say whether their party president Gerry Adams would the automatic choice to become First or Deputy First Minister if they achieved enough votes in the assembly election.
When asked yesterday if it should be taken as read that Mr Adams would be the choice for these top positions, Mr McGuinness replied that this would be an option the party would consider but ``not the only option''.