Sinn Féin was today deciding who its Northern Ireland candidate will be for next year’s European Parliament elections.
Party members were set to choose one candidate from a field of two at a selection convention in Belfast.
Former Stormont health minister Bairbre de Brun and Dungannon councillor Francie Molloy were both bidding to be the party’s candidate.
Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin had been expected to put his name forward after coming close in 1999 to winning a seat.
However, the former Foyle Assembly member did not put his name forward this time because he said he wanted to concentrate on the development of the party both in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Miss de Brun was elected to the Stormont Assembly for west Belfast in 1998 and has been a senior leadership figure.
Originally from Dublin, she taught languages in a Belfast grammar school and was the party’s spokesperson on policing and justice.
Her appointment as health minister in the power-sharing executive surprised some and she was faced with one of the most difficult portfolios in the Northern Ireland Executive.
Miss de Brun’s toughest decision as health minister was over the location of acute hospital services west of the River Bann.
She chose the Erne hospital in Enniskillen over a site in Omagh.
Her opponent, Mr Molloy, is a veteran of the republican movement and a former civil rights activist.
He was the director of operations for IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and senior Sinn Féin figure Owen Carron when they won by-elections in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981.
He has served on Dungannon District Council since 1985, was an abstentionist member of the Northern Ireland Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and after winning a seat in the Assembly in 1998 in Mid Ulster served as the chairman of the Stormont Finance and Personnel committee.
Tonight’s contest is expected to be keenly fought.
A Sinn Féin source said: “Francie is a highly respected figure among the grassroots but Bairbre has a high profile given her position in the leadership.
“It really is a tough one to call.”
Sinn Féin has already announced that one of its rising stars, Marylou McDonald, will be the party’s candidate in Dublin for next year’s European election.
A selection convention is also due to take place in Limerick on Saturday for the party’s candidate in Munster.
Its three candidates for the selection convention in Munster will be Cork councillor Jonathan O’Brien, David Cullinane from Waterford and Nancy Irwin from Limerick.
At the weekend, Mr McLaughlin said he believed the party could send a team of MEPs to Strasbourg and Brussels from both sides of the border.
The Sinn Féin source said: “We really do believe that the party could make a breakthrough in the election north of the border as well as south.
“Mitchel came so close the last time and with the party overtaking the SDLP in 2001 during the Westminster and local government elections in the north, there appears to be good grounds for optimism.”
Former Nationalist SDLP leader John Hume has confirmed he will run in next year’s election again.
Democratic Unionist Party leader the Rev Ian Paisley has also announced his intention to run.