'Bring it on' - NI parties gear up for the election

Northern Ireland's political parties have been setting out their stalls ahead of a summer election after Wednesday's announcement by the prime minister.

Rishi Sunak ended speculation on Wednesday, saying voters will go to the polls on 4 July.

Some Northern Ireland party leaders said they were surprised by an election in six weeks time, while others said they had been waiting patiently.

A meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive has been taking place - it is expected this will be the last executive meeting attended by Health Minister Robin Swann, who previously said that he would step down from his role to run for a seat at Westminster.

What's the latest on the election in Northern Ireland?

Sinn Féin has confirmed sitting MP Michelle Gildernew will not be standing in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency in the election and that she wants "to represent the people of Midlands-North-West in the European Parliament".

The party's North Belfast MP, John Finucane, said Sinn Féin are “certainly looking forward to July fourth”.

“I think the fact that people will have their say is a good thing,” he told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster Programme.

Michelle Gildernew
The sitting MP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew has confirmed that she will not be standing [Getty Images]

Mr Finucane was asked whether becoming the largest party from Northern Ireland at Westminster would be Sinn Féin’s measure of success for this election.

“It’s not about focusing on any other party it’s about focusing on ourselves,” he said.

“First and foremost we want to retain the seven seats that we have and in other constituencies we obviously want to grow our vote… and if that’s something that results in more seats that’s obviously something that we will be aiming for.”

Gavin Robinson
It's not too late for unionist co-operation, the Democratic Unionist Party's interim leader says [PA]

The DUP's interim leader Gavin Robinson has promised to bring a "positive" campaign over the coming six weeks, suggesting the party would not be engaging in "provocative" tactics.

Mr Robinson said it is not too late for rival unionists to co-operate to deliver victories in several key election battlegrounds.

"There are a couple of seats for which I think there is still an opportunity for unionist cooperation," Mr Robinson told reporters in his east Belfast constituency on Thursday.

He said he is ready to "engage in those conversations" in a "positive and productive" manner.

"We know that there are many within our community that seek co-operation and want to see unionists working together," Mr Robinson added.

"They don't like the idea that in an election such as this individuals could go forward and split the vote and remove their voice from Westminster."

'General election is a huge opportunity'

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said it was a case of “bring it on” with regard to the election.

“We need to see a new start," he said.

“Here within Northern Ireland, we have a huge opportunity to send a different balance of representation to Westminster, hopefully with a stronger Alliance team.”

Mr Farry said the constitutional question is not an issue in this election and “we are some way off any border poll being called”.

“I think what the electorate want to see in this election is people focusing on the real issues,” he added.

“For me, the big four are health, education, the climate and the economy and that’s what people are talking to us about on the doorsteps.”

The SDLP's South Belfast MP Claire Hanna said the party was “feeling confident” and would be “playing to win” in a number of constituencies.

“All elections are important and this election is important for people to try and get rid of a government who have decimated public services and lowered standards,” she said.

“2019 was a moment in time, I think everybody knows that, but I think people have also seen the value of strong voices for this region in Westminster contradicting the negative things that are said about Northern Ireland and advocating the positive.

“I think people have seen that is worthwhile, that’s valuable and they want to have their voice heard.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said his party was ready for the election.

“To be honest, we thought May would have been the time when we would have had the election," he said.

“This is a little bit later than we thought, 4 July, but I think we are as ready as everybody else is.”

Mr Beattie said it was his intention for the party to run in every constituency and he had made it clear "I am not somebody who does pacts".

Reform UK 'not standing candidates in NI'

Meanwhile Reform UK will not be standing candidates in Northern Ireland in the Westminster election, its deputy leader Ben Habib has said.

The party announced a partnership with Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in March, which it said would involve "agreed candidates" for constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Mr Habib said on Thursday, that Reform UK's attempt to register to run candidates in Northern Ireland is unlikely to be processed ahead of the deadline for nominations on 7 June.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, he said the party remains "100% committed to our alliance with TUV" and its "highly principled" leader Jim Allister.

The TUV said in a statement that it and Reform UK had “always been clear that the nature of our arrangement could result in all candidates in this election being TUV candidates if the protracted registration process took too long”.

"We are delighted that our arrangement with Reform UK gives people the opportunity to vote for a real national movement which stands up for restoring the United Kingdom and is clear that there can be no sea border,” a TUV spokesman said.

"This will be a joint TUV/Reform UK campaign with every candidate having the backing of each party."

How many MPs are there in Northern Ireland?

Eighteen seats are up for grabs in Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won the most seats - eight - in the last general election, but now has seven after former party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was suspended from the party.

He is contesting historical sexual offence charges and, on Wednesday, his solicitor indicated he will not be standing for re-election.

Sinn Féin is currently the largest party at Stormont and at local government level.

They will want to replicate that in the Westminster poll.

Currently, they have seven MPs, but are an abstentionist party, meaning they do not take their seats in the House of Commons.

The SDLP has two MPs and Alliance has one.

The deadline for candidates to submit nomination forms in Northern Ireland is 16:00 BST on Friday 7 June.

Parliament Buildings, Stormont
A meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive is taking place on Thursday [Reuters]

Analysis: Gareth Gordon, political correspondent

Northern Ireland's political parties certainly didn't expect a July election which is why so many questions need answering and soon.

Questions like: who will the DUP run in place of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in Lagan Valley?

Will the Alliance leader Naomi Long stand in East Belfast?

And if she doesn't, will that mean the prospects are better for Gavin Robinson just weeks into his time as the DUP's interim leader?

On the face of it, the DUP appears to be the party under most pressure.

The Donaldson factor is one thing. The threat from the link-up between the TUV and Reform UK is another.

All of which means Sinn Féin will fancy its chances of becoming the biggest party for the first time in a Westminster election.

Am I registered to vote?

Meanwhile, the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has said the deadline for absent vote applications is 17:00 BST on Friday 14 June.

Anyone who previously registered to vote online, will be required to supply a Digital Registration Number (DRN) in their absent vote application, via the electoral office website.

You can find out if you have a DRN here.

How can I get a postal vote in Northern Ireland?

There are two types of absent votes:

  • A postal vote, which is where your ballot paper is posted to you in advance of the election. You then complete your ballot paper and post it back to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland.

  • A proxy vote which is where you appoint someone you trust to vote on your behalf. They would go and vote for you in your allocated polling station.

You can apply for a permanent or a temporary absent vote for both postal and proxy votes, but must give an explanation.

A temporary absent vote can be applied for if, for example, you are going on holiday or are sick.

The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has said that to apply for a permanent postal vote or proxy, you must have a valid reason.

It says this includes the following:

  • illness/disability

  • away from home for education reasons

  • away from home for reasons of work/employment

Further information on absent vote applications can be obtained here.