Sinn Féin is set to contest all 18 Westminster constituencies after its efforts to form a pact of parties opposed to Brexit failed to get a positive response from other party leaders.
The party is aiming to unseat “an architect of Brexit” in north Belfast, but it also faces a battle to withstand challenges from unionists in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and from nationalists in Derry.
Standing alongside Sinn Féin’s North Belfast candidate, John Finucane, the party deputy leader Michelle O’Neill (pictured) made clear their intention to target the constituency’s sitting MP, DUP hardliner Nigel Dodds.
“We believe there is a real opportunity in North Belfast to oust someone who has been architect of Brexit, someone who has actively worked against the interests of people who live here on this island, and John Finucane can provide local representation but also will reflect Ireland’s interests in all of this mess,” she said.
Asked about her party’s suggested pro-Remain electoral pact with other parties opposed to Brexit, Ms O’Neill said: “I have had conversations with the other party leaders in terms of how we can maximise the pro-Remain candidates returned in this election, but I suppose it will be for the electorate to pass judgment on that.”
Ms O’Neill said the election is “a welcome opportunity for the people of the north to have their say on the looming disaster of Brexit.
“Westminster is in chaos. It has no answers and no solutions. The Brexit debacle has shown that Westminster cannot, has not and will never act in the interests of the people of the north.”
Sinn Féin MPs have always refused to sign up to the oath pledging allegiance to the British Crown necessary to take up their seats. They have also repeatedly comdemned events at Westminster as focused exclusively on England’s interests.
Ms O’Neill said the election would be an opportunity to “reject the DUP” and the “destructive role” of Westminster. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism has come in for criticism from their rivals.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Ireland’s destiny was being decided by the Brexit agenda at Westminster. “Like it or not, the only way to prevent the kind of outcome that would devastate our communities is to show up and vote it down,” he said.
“Our MPs have, with the exception of Sylvia Hermon, either facilitated this disaster or stood outside on the lawn shouting in. They have failed to defend our interests. It’s time to give the electorate a chance to cast their verdict on that failure.”
The closest contest among nationalists is likely to be in Derry. In 2017 Sinn Féin won the Foyle seat from the SDLP by a tiny majority of just 169, but this time it faces a greater challenge in the form of the SDLP leader himself.
Sinn Féin will also face a challenge from Aontú, which is contesting its first general election following its formation arising from a split in Sinn Féin last year. The left-leaning, socially conservative republican party has said that if elected, its MPs would sit in the Dublin parliament at Leinster House.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín TD said he had received messages from Sinn Féin members seeking to blame his party for any loss of a Sinn Féin seats in the election.
“Let us be clear. The Sinn Féin leadership have done this all by themselves,” he said. “If Sinn Féin choose policies that alienate half of their electorate they cannot blame anyone else for the loss of votes and seats.”