NI Assembly election: Votes up for grabs and political prayer

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Votes up for grabs

Justin Kouame
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Candidates should engage with refugees and asylum seekers before the election, Justin Kouame urged

Election candidates should engage with asylum seekers in the final push for votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, a support organisation has said.

Asylum seekers from Commonwealth countries are allowed to vote in Thursday's election.

And the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) is urging those among its 600-strong membership, who are eligible to vote, to do just that.

The organisation helps refugees and asylum seekers to integrate into Northern Ireland life and lobbies politicians on their behalf.

But Justin Kouame, the chair of NICRAS, said that no political parties have reached out to them during the election campaign.

"They don't see it as a priority," he said.

"We encourage all our members to vote - the majority of them will have a voting card and it's important that politicians know that.

"The reality is Northern Ireland is changing and the voice of minorities will count.

"Getting a vote from our community can make a big difference - with this election, every vote will count."

Mr Kouame said politics in Northern Ireland can be "confusing" for asylum seekers, and therefore parties should make an effort to engage with them so they can make an "informed decision" on who will get their vote.

And he believes politicians would also benefit from those discussions.

"It's important for politicians to make contact with those communities," he said, "so they can ask them questions and try to understand the issues they face."

NICRAS has laid out an election manifesto, listing numerous matters high on the agenda for its members.

It wants to see a marked improvement in accommodation standards for refugees asylum seekers, and specialist mental health provision for those who arrive in Northern Ireland having fled persecution in their home county.

Putting prayer in politics

Image source, Press Eye
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Voters should approach the assembly election "prayerfully", Rev Frank Sellar said

People should not take a "cynical" view of politics ahead of this week's election, the most senior figure in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has said.

It would be easy for people to be "pessimistic" about the state of Stormont, Rev Frank Sellar said, with a second poll coming just 10 months after voters last went to the ballot box.

But in a letter to Presbyterian ministers and their congregations, he urged them to vote and "approach [the election] prayerfully".

"You will be well aware of the spectrum of difficult and complex issues facing individuals and local communities, issues in which government often has responsibilities and a definite role to play," Rev Sellar wrote.

"Engaging and participating in the democratic process is, therefore, one of the ways that we may seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which we have been called."

Image source, Press Eye
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Politicians should end "divisive language", Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Eamon Martin, said

Rev Sellar said people should use their vote "in the hope that the people we elect will work with integrity, generosity of spirit and a commitment to the common good".

His comments come after Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland said last week that "each vote cast, or not cast, potentially influences the values that will shape future law and policy".

Catholics "have a duty to be hopeful" and "work towards creating a society that values all of its people," said a letter signed by Archbishop Eamon Martin, the church's leader in Ireland, and four other clerics.

They also said that "bitter language and tone of conflict" had returned to Northern Ireland politics, and urged that "divisive language and actions" that could make post-election negotiations more difficult should end.

A bird's-eye view

Potential post-election deadlock could leave Northern Ireland's environment exposed to the consequences of Brexit, a wildlife charity has warned.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) believes a return to direct rule would leave the region without a voice on environmental issues in negotiations over the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

Anne-Marie McDevitt, the RSPB's head of conservation, said Brexit is set to have "a disproportionate effect on Northern Ireland".

"From our point of view, it's because most of Northern Ireland - 70% - is under agriculture, and for us, a lot of that management gives you the species that you have here," she said.

"It is hard to get the environment onto the agenda, so I think it will be even more difficult when we don't have voices from here standing up for us."

Ms McDevitt said the RSPB is taking on more staff "in preparation for Brexit", but their work would be hampered if Stormont was not in action.

"We would want those staff to be working with our politicians here and with other groups to build new policies and protect our legislation.

"That will be more difficult if we move to direct rule."

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.