NI Assembly election: All aboard the Eastwood Express

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All aboard the Eastwood Express

Media caption,

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood says he'll need to upgrade the battle-bus after the election

Election battle-buses have a history of cruising into controversy.

Remember the "fuss at the bus" between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionists in the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign?

Or perhaps Vote Leave's big red machine in the EU referendum campaign sits more freshly in the memory?

Well, this is the Social Democratic and Labour Party's (SDLP) bus - the "Eastwood Express", as the party's leader has dubbed it.

Colum Eastwood acknowledged that it's not exactly the most formidable form of campaign transport.

"It's modest, aye - but we only had a couple of weeks to get ready, so that's about as big as we could manage," he said.

Image caption,
The Eastwood Express will ferry candidates and campaigners around Northern Ireland

"It's a conversation starter at least."

Vote Leave's Brexit campaign bus featured the controversial and incorrect claim that a UK withdrawal from the EU could boost the NHS by £350m a week.

The SDLP is refraining from plastering any bold claims like that on to the side of its vehicle, but Mr Eastwood did stick his neck out to predict he might soon need a bigger bus.

"The problem is we won't get all our incoming MLAs on it - that's the only problem," he joked.

"We'll be back next year with a 50-seater!"

You can see more of the SDLP's bus in BBC News NI political correspondent Enda McClafferty's interview with Mr Eastwood on BBC Newsline later this week.

Sexual health groups slam Stormont instability

Image caption,
Election candidates were quizzed on sexual health at the FPA's hustings in Belfast

Here's an apt debate to be having on Valentine's Day - one hustings in Belfast on Tuesday focused squarely on how politics can improve on sexual health services.

It was organised by the Family Planning Association as part of Northern Ireland's Sexual Health Week and was attended by numerous support organisations.

The feeling among some of those groups was that uncertainty at Stormont would have a damaging effect on the services they can offer.

Mary Crawford, of Brook Northern Ireland, a sexual health service for young people, explained why a return to direct rule would not be in the interests of the group's clients.

"If we have a period where we don't have political stability, then the finance will be an issue for all of us," she said.

"That affects our staffing, it affects our planning.

"But then it also affects the services that we can actually deliver to the clients that we are dealing with, and that is a real difficulty."

And Jackie Richardson, who heads the HIV support charity Positive Life, called for sex education to feature further up on the agenda in the assembly.

"Sex is the one thing and the one issue that affects everybody at some point in their lives, with the exception of a very small minority," she said.

"I think not to have a focus on awareness-raising around that is just negligible."

Sharing the St Valentine's Day love?

It's fair to say that there was some surprise on social media when the DUP's Gavin Robinson appeared in this photo on Tuesday afternoon...

Image source, Love Equality NI

That's because the activists he is pictured with represent the Love Equality NI group, which campaigns for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Mr Robinson's party has, of course, been vehemently opposed to legalising marriage for gay couples.

So, was he sharing the St Valentine's Day love for their cause?

A DUP spokeswoman said he was simply accepting a petition on the issue from the campaigners.

"Our position on this issue remains as was and is well known," she added.

Mr Robinson had a message for his visitors: "Don't forget the chocolates next time," he posted on Twitter.

Beating the deadline

Image source, PA

Roses are red, violets are blue... if you're not registered to vote then it's too bad for you.

St Valentine's Day was the final chance for anyone wanting to have a say in the assembly poll on 2 March to get their name on the electoral register.

The lunchtime queue at the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland's Belfast branch snaked all the way down the stairwell, with people submitting their applications for a vote.

One student in the line said she had little interest in voting before now, but her view had changed.

"It's a big, massive vote this year, so I want to get involved and have my vote counted," she said.

"It may not make much of a difference, but at least I have my say."

And another first-time voter said she was spurred on to vote after the EU referendum result didn't go the way she'd expected.

Image caption,
A long queue of people were at Belfast's Electoral Office to register for a vote

"The Brexit vote really upset me and I'm really annoyed that I didn't vote," she said.

"I think it's time that I grow up and make a change for the future."

But others weren't so hopeful of change in this election.

"The people that moan about it online aren't always the people that go and vote," one man said.

"We'll be in the exact same position as we always are - we always gripe about it but I don't think anything's going to change.

One regular voter said he was frustrated by recent happenings at Stormont.

But he added: "Will it make me change who I vote for? Probably not.

"I'm no less disgusted with the actions of the people I have voted for before, but I still want to use my vote and I want to make it count."

BBC News NI's Campaign Catch-up will keep you across the Northern Ireland Assembly election trail with a daily dose of the main stories, the minor ones and the lighter moments in the run up to polling day on Thursday 2 March.