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Election D-Day dawns

Thursday, 2 March 2017

VOTERS gear up for their second election in 10 months tomorrow, Thursday, in a contest that will shape the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

Fifteen candidates go in search of one of the five seats in West Tyrone and 12 seek a similar number of places in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.

Polling stations open tomorrow, Thursday, at 7am and will remain so until 10pm the same night. Votes will then be taken to the count centre at Omagh Leisure Centre that night for verification of the unissued ballot papers.

The 160 or so staff involved in the count will start operations at 8am on Friday morning. Some 64,258 people are entitled to vote in West Tyrone. A new round of registrations has seen 2,227 voters added to the electorate while postal votes are up to 1,819 and proxy votes 982.

In Fermanagh-South Tyrone 73,100 will be eligible to vote. New registrations here amount to 2,274 with postal votes at 2,766 and proxy votes, 1,556.

Throughout the campaign all contestants have been pounding the pavements in both constituencies in an effort to deal with the mixture of local demands and national scandals. Things like the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme, Red Sky, Nama, Irish Language Act and respect have all boomed loudly depending on which candidate arrived at your door.

Local issues such as broadband, health, education, infrastructure, local jobs and investment have been in the air too but perhaps a little overshadowed as the fallout between the major parties seemed to be taking centre stage.

West Tyrone is a constituency of fine-margins and with the reduction in the number of seats from six to five and a higher quota, the counts may run into Saturday.

And considering there is set to be at least one major political casualty here after Thursday's vote, this contest will be about numbers, transfers and of course, the turnout.

For successive elections three Sinn Féin candidates have been returned, with the remainder split between the DUP, UUP and SDLP. Six does not go into five though and it is just a question of who loses out. The addition of the TUV will certainly make it more interesting but in general there appears to be a unwritten rule between all pro-union parties to transfer to one another.

The major name missing from the ballot is UUP stalwart Ross Hussey.The veteran Omagh MLA retired last month on medical grounds and his replacement, 24 year-old Alicia Clarke faces the challenging task of retaining his seat at her first time of asking.

In recognition of the change in electoral make-up both Sinn Féin and the DUP are standing only their incumbents, with all previously successful candidates bar Hussey hoping for a swift re-election.

The DUP's Thomas Buchanan looks the safest unionist bet to retain his seat defending a surplus quota, even in the face of an expected RHI backlash, and he should be joined by at least two Sinn Féin candidates, Barry McElduff and Michaela Boyle polling strongest last time out.

In the narrowest finish of the 2016 election, Sinn Féin's Declan McAleer scraped past running-mate Grace McDermott from Castlderg by 10 votes after the 11th count and he could again face a nail-biting battle with the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan and Alicia Clarke for the final two seats.

Of the remainder to throw their hats into the ring former Sinn Féin councillor, now independent, Sorcha McAnespie could present the greatest challenge to the established order, while the TUV will bank upon the experience of former DUP councillor, Charlie Chittick, to poll strongly in the party's first appearance in the constituency.

For the rest, who include Alliance, Greens and the pro-cannabis Citizens Independent Social Thought Alliance (CISTA) their transfers could yet prove decisive, while for curiosity value alone it will be intriguing to see if independen, Susan Anne White's controversial support for recriminalising homosexuality and making adultery illegal garner any support from the voters.

The performance of DUP leader, Arlene Foster, and her party will undoubtedly be the focus of attention in the count for the seats for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The former First Minister topped the poll with 8,801 first preference votes in her first election as DUP leader last May but this time out she will face a bigger battle this time round with the RHI scandal still making the headlines. Indeed there have been predictions that it could weaken her position as leader, particularly if the overall result does not go well.

Speculation is rife too that her DUP colleague, Lord Maurice Morrow, may be more vulnerable and may take any hit over the 'cash for ash' fall out.

The Ulster Unionists are fielding one candidate with outgoing MLA., Rosemary Barton, hoping to retain her seat, though she faces a tough battle thanks to the reduction in Assembly seats.

Sinn Féin lost a seat to the SDLP's Richie McPhillips last time out and with newcomer Jemma Dolan in place, the party will hope to regain the seat. It is expected that their other outgoing MLAs, Michelle Gildernew and Sean Lynch should get home safely The TUV's Alex Elliott, a cousin of MP Tom Elliott, will want to maximise on last year's performance -- 1,164 first preference votes.

It looks like four of the seats could go along predicted lines, two DUP and two Sinn Féin with the SDLP, UUP and maybe even SF battling it out for the last seat.

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