Northern Ireland

Unionist battle: First assembly election for DUP and UUP leaders

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionCarrickfergus will be just one of the unionist battlegrounds in this year's Assembly election

In exactly fifteen weeks' time, Northern Ireland will go to the polls - for the third time in as many years.

The door-rapping and leaflet-dropping has never really stopped.

But it is about to get all the more intense - and in unionism, there are some new dimensions.

Arlene Foster has been DUP leader for just over a month.

Mike Nesbitt is also leading his party - the Ulster Unionists - into an assembly poll for the first time.

The DUP have 38 seats and the Ulster Unionists 13.

Castle views

On the streets of Carrickfergus, both leaders seem to be impressing the voters.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Arlene Foster's rise up through the ranks of the DUP has been a rapid one

People said Arlene Foster "spoke sense", was "capable" and "strong".

And the words used to describe Mike Nesbitt were "clever", "sensible" and "confident".

Both parties think their leaders are electoral assets.

East Antrim MLA Gordon Lyons was co-opted into the assembly last year.

He said: "Arlene Foster has set out very clearly her vision for Northern Ireland and the message we'll be taking to the voters at the election.

Image caption Earlier this week, Mike Nesbitt said leaving the Northern Ireland Executive was one of the options his party was considering

"She grew up at a time when the bomb and the bullet were commonplace, but now she wants something better for the next generation.

"She wants a more hopeful Northern Ireland and a more prosperous Northern Ireland.

"People are responding to that in a very positive way."

The Ulster Unionists are in buoyant mood after capturing the South Antrim Westminster seat from the DUP last year.

Carl McClean is a councillor in North Down, one of the constituencies where they hope to make inroads in the Stormont election.

"Mike Nesbitt has got us to the point where we're completely united and can't wait to go into this election. I don't think any other party can say that.

"You will hear people say they feel undersold and let down, and want change in politics.

"They want a credible alternative, and under Mike Nesbitt, we are providing that."

Leaders' spotlight

The spotlight will be on the leaders like never before during the upcoming campaign.

Along with the County Antrim constituencies, Strangford and Lagan Valley will be key to the election outcome for unionism.

The Traditional Unionist Voice, UKIP and the Progressive Unionist Party will also be in the hunt for unionist votes.

The TUV and UKIP already have one assembly seat each and the PUP are looking to win one for the first time since 2007.

Image caption Jobs, infrastructure and regenerating the town centre are important issues in Carrickfergus.

The issues voters talk about in Carrickfergus will come up across Northern Ireland.

Jobs, infrastructure and town centre regeneration were mentioned again and again when people were asked for their top concerns.

There were also quite a number of people who said they doubted any politician would deal with their issues - therefore they planned not to cast a vote.

But politicians will be fighting for it anyway.

The poll will be a defining test for Arlene Foster and Mike Nesbitt.

If the UUP make some gains, but the DUP remain comfortably the largest party in Northern Ireland, both parties could claim to have had a good election.

As the final candidates are selected and the figures are pored over, vote management could be crucial in an election with multiple candidates and the option of voting for more than one party in order of preference.

More on this story