Northern Ireland leaders make final pitches to voters

Over 50,000 more voters registered to take part compared with 2017 Westminster poll

Party leaders in Northern Ireland made their final pitches to close to 1.3 million voters on Wednesday ahead of the Westminster poll to elect MPs for the North's 18 constituencies.

A total of 102 candidates are competing for the 18 House of Commons seats with 1,293,971 entitled to vote – 51,273 more voters than in the 2017 general election.

Some 3,000 Northern Ireland Electoral Office staff will be working at 600 polling stations around the North as voters go to the polls from 7am to 10pm.

The DUP is hoping to hold on to the ten seats it won in 2017 although deputy leader Nigel Dodds is under threat from Sinn Féin's John Finucane in North Belfast and outgoing party MP Emma Little Pengelly is challenged by the SDLP's Claire Hanna and Alliance's Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast.

The DUP has a reasonable chance of winning an additional seat in North Down, where outgoing independent unionist MP Lady (Sylvia) Hermon is not standing.

Sinn Féin is seeking to hold its seven seats and possibly gain a seat in hotly contested North Belfast.

The SDLP, which lost three seats in 2017, is hoping to regain two of them, Foyle and South Belfast.

In East Belfast, Alliance leader Naomi Long is trying to oust the DUP's Gavin Robinson.

‘Important election’

DUP leader Arlene Foster said ahead of polling on Wednesday night that a vote for her party was to "get Northern Ireland moving again".

She said voting for the DUP would protect “Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom”,“deliver a strong DUP team which will not support a Corbyn government”, and “send a message that there can be no borders in the Irish Sea”.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said this was the most important election in a generation. "A strong vote for Sinn Féin means your voice will continue to be heard loud and clear where it counts – in Brussels, Dublin, Downing Street and in Washington," she said.

She said after the election, negotiations would begin to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly. “If other parties join us we can quickly restore fully functioning, credible and sustainable government,” added Ms O’Neill.

SDLP leader Mr Eastwood said people should "vote to stop Brexit". He said the election was "an opportunity for people to send MPs to Westminster who will vote against Brexit and send a message to the DUP and Sinn Féin that it's time to get back to work".

“The polls are narrowing. We’re now strongly in the territory of a hung parliament where every vote will count in the fight to stop Brexit. On Thursday, if you turn up for us, SDLP MPs will turn up for you,” added Mr Eastwood.

‘Union first’

The Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken urged people to vote for his candidates who would put the "union first". He said the focus must be to "bin Boris Johnson's Brexit deal".

"Nobody should underestimate the impact that the outcome of Thursday`s general election will have if Boris Johnson gets away with a clear majority to implement his Brexit plan, which will push Northern Ireland further onto the window ledge of the union," he said.

Alliance leader Ms Long said the election would "decide our future relationship with Europe" and also was a chance "for voters to send a message they have had enough of the Stormont stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Féin". She urged people to "vote for hope, not fear".

Counting in the election will begin sometime after 10pm at four count centres: the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast, where six constituencies will be counted; the Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt, Co Derry, where eight constituencies will be counted; at the Omagh Leisure Centre in Co Tyrone, where two will be counted; and at the Aurora Leisure Centre in Bangor, Co Down, where two also will be counted.

The first results are expected shortly after 1am with the final result to be declared sometime after 4am. The first result declared in 2017 was North Down at 1.15am and the last was Fermanagh South Tyrone at 4.10am.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times