N. Ireland Politics

General election 2017: Geared for debate; 'dirty tricks' letter

A graphic showing the politicians taking part in the BBC NI Leaders' Debate
Image caption Last-minute changes were made to the line-up for the BBC NI Leaders' Debate

With the general election just two days away, what's been a low-key campaign to date has finally been ratcheted up.

First, the UTV election debate on Monday night brought the five main parties to prime-time telly.

And they will do it again on Tuesday night in the BBC Leaders' Debate, live on BBC1 Northern Ireland at 21:00 BST.

The DUP leader Arlene Foster won't be present as she has travelled to Belgium for the Battle of Messines commemorations.

Image caption MLAs observed a minute's silence to remember the victims of the London Bridge attack

But before she left she took time to sign a book of condolence at Stormont for those killed in Saturday night's London Bridge attack.

Deputy leader Nigel Dodds was due to stand in for her, as he had done in the UTV debate, but his mother has become ill and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will take his place.

And Ms Foster's won't be the only leader missing - Sinn Féin's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill has been replaced by John O'Dowd in the debate after she became sick.

The SDLP's Colum Eastwood, the UUP's Robin Swann and Naomi Long of the Alliance Party will make up the rest of the panel.

Faking it

Image copyright SDLP
Image caption Margaret Ritchie has reported the letter to the police and the Electoral Commission

On first glance, this letter being distributed in South Down may look like a letter from the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie, but she insists it's not.

The letter takes a swipe at the DUP's Jim Wells, claiming he has "preyed on people's fears rather than being honest with you about the future".

It goes on: "The DUP and UUP do not merit your vote. I do."

But Ms Ritchie said she has now reported the letter to the police and the Electoral Commission, hoping that a "robust investigation" will "find the source and hold [it] accountable".

Image copyright SDLP

"This letter is an attack on the community in South Down and on the integrity of our democratic process in this Westminster election.

"People in South Down will see through these dirty tricks - they know my character and my passion for all the people in South Down and we will not be deterred."

Meanwhile, the PSNI has said it is investigating a "small number of reports of electoral fraud" after information was passed to it by the Electoral Office.

Ch Supt Karen Baxter said: "We work closely with the Electoral Office and where information becomes available in relation to criminal activity, we take action."

Eyeing a Profit

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Gerry Carroll said his party would go to Westminster to oppose the "Tories ripping apart the NHS"

While the five main parties go head-to-head on the telly, the smaller parties will be trying to get their message heard on the doorsteps instead.

One of those dodging the showers on Tuesday night will be Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit, which is running just two candidates in this election.

Speaking while canvassing in Poleglass, he acknowledged that the recent run of elections had been a drain on his party's resources.

"Even to put a candidate on a the ballot paper is £500," he said.

"With leaflets, resources - a lot of money going towards those things - it's quite tough for small parties who don't receive corporate donations or donations from big, rich individuals."

'Ripping NHS apart'

Mr Carroll's chances of causing an upset similar to the blow he dealt to Sinn Féin in last year's assembly election are close to non-existent.

But he is promising that if elected he would take his seat, unlike Sinn Féin MPs, and he said that message has gone down well in West Belfast.

"Abstentionism was the right policy in 1919 but it doesn't make sense today when you have the Tories ripping apart the NHS and the public sector.

"People want to see someone in there who's going at them - what's the point of voting for someone if they're not going to take their seat?"

And as opposed to the monarchy as he is, having to swear an oath to the Queen before taking a seat on the green benches of the House of Commons wouldn't put him off.

"We would hold our nose, cross our fingers and go in and represent people.

"We would follow the example of Bernadette Devlin and take our seat and give hell to the establishment."

Conservative expectations?

Another minor band hoping for a strong showing at the polls on Thursday is the NI Conservatives.

It's had nothing in the way of electoral success in Northern Ireland and the party is standing several candidates who are based in England, just like it's done in previous votes.

Mark Logan is one of its homegrown runners but he's juggling his campaign with the final stages of completing his masters degree and the timing of the election has been tricky for him.

In spite of that, he's feeling confident that Tory candidates in Northern Ireland will poll well this time, and he takes issue with the NI Conservatives being described as "one of the smaller parties".

"We can win seats across Northern Ireland - that's because we are part of the UK," he said.

"People in Northern Ireland want to vote for a candidate who stands in a party that stands everywhere in the UK.

"They want to be able to say: 'We are a united people, we are in the UK and we are sick and tired of seeing the coalition of chaos at Stormont.'"

In the frame

Image copyright Pure Derry

On Monday, we brought you word on the artist trying to draw inspiration from the campaign trail for a piece to sum up this latest run to the polls.

It appears she's been beaten to it by satirical website Pure Derry, which presented this, the Moan Elisha.

It's a nod to Sinn Féin's Elisha McCallion - elected to the assembly in March, she's challenging Mark Durkan in Foyle.

A full list of candidates standing in each constituency in the general election is available here.

In case you missed it...

Elsewhere on the campaign trail on Tuesday...

BBC News NI's Campaign Catch-up will keep you across the general 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 8 June.

Hear more on BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra at 17:40 each weekday.

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