The Six Counties is facing its biggest election contest in years as some 250 candidates launch their bids for seats in the troubled Belfast Assembly.
A total of 108 Assembly seats will be up contested in 18 constituencies when voters go to the polls on March 7.
Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists will have the most candidates, with 46 people running, followed by the Ulster Unionists on 38, Sinn Féin on 37 and the nationalist SDLP on 35.
The moderate unionist Alliance Party nominated 18 candidates across 17 constituencies.
Sinn Féin is contesting every constituency, with a number of new faces on the ballot. It is fielding five candidates in the republican heartland of west Belfast.
Republican Sinn Féin, which split from Gerry Adams’s party 21 years ago, will run in six constituencies with former PoW Geraldine Taylor challenging Gerry Adams in West Belfast and former hunger striker Brendan McLaughlin facing Martin McGuinness in Mid Ulster.
RSF veteran Joe O’Neill from Bundoran, County Donegal will contest West Tyrone, while former PoW Michael McManus from Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh, is standing in Fermanagh South-Tyrone where independent republican Gerry McGeough is also running.
Dungiven RSF member Michael McGonigle is standing in East Derry while former prisoner Barry Toman is running in Upper Bann.
RSF President Ruairi O Bradaigh said candidates would be campaigning under the banner of “Smash Stormont” and confirmed they would not be taking their seats if elected.
Mr O Bradaigh accused Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness of abandoning key republican principles.
“They are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the SDLP and ultimately from unionists, with a small U,” he said in a west Belfast press conference on Tuesday.
“What the Provisional leadership is doing is in direct conflict with the 1916 proclamation of the Republic and with the declaration of independence of the first (all-Ireland) Dail. Their recent decisions also conflict with the high ideals for which so many men and women of all creeds have struggled, suffered and died over the centuries,” he added.
Mr O Bradaigh said that republicans had a right to bear arms to compel Britain to leave Ireland.
“We uphold the right of the Irish people. President Bush, no friend of ours, has said that every country is entitled to defend itself. Well, surely the Irish people are entitled to defend themselves. Are they the only people on the face of the earth that do not enjoy that right?” he added.
He said candidates were receiving a good reception from voters. Republican Sinn Féin is not registered as a party, however, and the RSF party name will not appear alongside the names of the six candidates, who are officially listed as independents.
The party is not contesting the Foyle constituency, where Peggy O’Hara, the mother of hunger strike martyr Patsy O’Hara, is running as an independent abstentionist republican.
In a surprise move, UK Unionist leader Robert McCartney put his name forward as a candidate in six constituencies, as well as running other candidates.
George Ennis, a former Assembly member with Ian Paisley’s DUP, also caused a surprise when he switched allegiances to become a candidate for the UKUP.
McCartney strongly criticised the DUP for allowing suggestions that the party might share power with Sinn Féin at Stormont in the aftermath of the election.
“If I don’t run and provide them with somebody on the ballot paper who represents ‘NO’ to Sinn Féin in government - then they have no voice at all,” he said. That is my sole reason for taking on this electoral burden,” he said.
The DUP has still not released its manifesto, which will be closely studied by all sides. The British government has threatened to cancel the election if the manifesto does not allow for a historic new administration, with Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness jointly at its helm. There have been rumours that the DUP could see a split over the policy.
Hardline loyalist Willie Frazer also put his name forward in two constituencies, as an independent in Newry and Armagh and also in Foyle.
There was a surprise return to politics by the former leader of the now defunct Northern Ireland Unionist Party, Cedric Wilson in Strangford, who in 1998 was elected to the Assembly in the constituency.
The loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, who lost their former leader David Ervine, when he suddenly died last month at the age of 53, will run in three constituencies.
Anti-collusion campaigner Raymond McCord, who is standing as an independent in north Belfast, is set to attract votes from both communities.
The campaign by McCord, whose son was murdered by the UVF in collusion with the RUC/PSNI police, appears to have put the PUP out of standing in the Assembly elections in North Belfast.
Raymond McCord says the fall out from the Police Ombudsman’s report into the 1997 death of his son has led the PUP to abandon all hope of capturing a seat in the north of the city.
He asked: “Who is going to vote for the PUP in North Belfast after Nuala O’Loan’s report?
“The PUP knows it has no chance in North Belfast and it is frightened of standing a candidate in case they get less votes than me.”
Former DUP Assembly member Paul Berry, who was forced to quit the party for personal reasons, will be running in the Newry and Armagh constituency, while veteran socialist Eamonn McCann is again on the ballot papers in Derry.