N. Ireland Politics

NI Assembly election: Martina Purdy on unionist parties

Peter Robinson, on the campaign trail in Lisburn, headed into a booth entitled, "Future Vision".

The booth, which is run by RNIB, has a gadget that can reveal how your future self might look.

The DUP leader politely declined to have a go - he's too focused on the immediate future and his party's prospects in the assembly election on 5 May.

Mr Robinson seems confident of recovering ground, after losing his seat in East Belfast in the general election.

In that poll, he seemed to be invisible. Now he's everywhere.

A woman in Lisburn, thrilled to meet him, kept repeating in awe: "I never see ye. I never see ye."

'Hugs and handshakes'

Mr Robinson is even tweeting how he much he is enjoying the campaign, telling his followers about his efforts in Cregagh: "Plenty of hugs and handshakes. Don't you just love elections?"

But his hard-headed side is still lurking in the spring sunshine when it comes to the competition.

After a "tremendous" reception in Lisburn, where the party is fielding four candidates, Mr Robinson claims his party is gaining ground at the expense of the Ulster Unionists.

"It's fairly clear that the Ulster Unionist Party is falling apart - I think people see the dissent there is within the ranks," he says.

"They see they are not a credible party to be in the assembly and we are getting people who formerly have voted for the Ulster Unionist Party, and indeed people who would hold loyalty to the Ulster Unionist Party, who are telling us they are going to lend us their vote in this election."

'Miracles'

Mr Robinson acknowledges that keeping 36 seats - won under Ian Paisley's leadership - will not be easy.

He has gone on record to say that winning two seats in West Tyrone last time was something of a miracle. But he adds: "We believe in miracles."

Jim Allister, his old TUV nemesis, has been dismissed as "irrelevant".

Despite claims by the DUP that this is an election that will be fought on bread and butter issues, the DUP has claimed voters are concerned at the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming first minister.

Mr Robinson says this is boosting his party.

His rivals in the TUV and Ulster Unionist Party point out the DUP deliberately allowed the rules to change in the post-St Andrew's legislation for its own electoral advantage.

The rules changed to guarantee the party with the most seats would take the first minister's job.

Previously the community with the most votes - that is the unionist community - was more likely to take that honour.

Mr Robinson protests that his party was betrayed and that his peers voted against the change.

Complex argument

The TUV insists that the DUP failed to force a vote in the Commons as the debate was guillotined and while its peers opposed the amendment, they ultimately backed legislation allowing the change.

It's a complex argument to have on the doorstep.

The Ulster Unionists have clashed publicly about whether it matters if Martin McGuinness takes the first minister's post.

Basil McCrea says it's not an issue as it is a joint equal office, but David McNarry contradicted him.

In Ballymena, most voters interviewed by the BBC were not too anxious about the issue.

Tom Elliott has brushed aside public spats as he faces his first test as Ulster Unionist leader. He said his party is a broad church, not a dictatorship.

And he has hit back at the DUP's style.

"I'm not so sure when you scratch the surface of the DUP that you actually see them as a liberal party," he says.

"The Ulster Unionist Party is still the centre-ground of unionism. We offer that stability to the union. We offer stability to the people of Northern Ireland. We are confident the public will realise that and will see the shambles there has been under the DUP-Sinn Fein leadership in the last four years."

Tough sell

It's in places such as North Antrim that the Ulster Unionists are hoping to win back support.

But it can be a tough sell even without a Paisley in the race, as its two candidates seek to make gains.

One couple, when asked if they were interested in the UUP, sharply replied: "Not in the slightest."

But a friendly face soon emerged to declare: "Hello Tom, pleased to meet you."

As for TUV leader Jim Allister, North Antrim offers his best chances for a seat based on previous results.

He is one of 12 TUV candidates in this race, including Harry Toan in East Belfast where the DUP leader lost his seat in the general election last year.

On the Belmont Road, he tells voters who listen politely that he can improve Stormont.

Mr Allister told the BBC: "Once the TUV gets into Stormont it will never be the same again, and it needs to be changed.

"It needs to have an opposition, it needs to have a right to change our government.

"All those things are so fundamental and taken for granted everywhere else. But in this part of the world, there seems to be those who think voters shouldn't have those basic democratic rights. We say different and we'll say different in Stormont."

Battlegrounds

Henry Bell, a political analyst and historian, says this election is hard to predict.

He suggests the TUV is "almost guaranteed" a seat, based on previous results. And he doesn't anticipate any dramatic changes.

The DUP likely to come back with roughly the same number of seats. He also suggests that recent elections show the Ulster Unionist vote may have bottomed out and may even grow this time.

Other commentators suggest there is a danger the Ulster Unionists could be squeezed further between the DUP and Alliance, which surpassed the Ulster Unionists in East Belfast last year to win the DUP's seat.

Lagan Valley, North Antrim, East Belfast, West Tyrone, Upper Bann, North Belfast and Strangford are just some of the key battlegrounds to watch in unionism.

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