The North’s Assembly Election campaign will today go up several gears as candidates lodge their nomination papers for the March 7 poll.
With the possibility of devolved government returning to the North by March 26, there could be a more crowded field in the province’s 18 constituencies than in the previous Assembly Election in November 2003.
Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists will be bidding to hold on to their position as the leading party in the Stormont Assembly and as the biggest voice in unionism.
However, Sinn Féin will also be hoping to remain the largest nationalist party and challenge the DUP for the top post of First Minister in the next executive.
Reg Empey’s Ulster Unionists and Mark Durkan’s nationalist SDLP will be providing the main challenge to Mr Paisley’s and Gerry Adams’ parties.
However, they will also face candidates within the unionist and republican communities opposed to Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Following Sinn Féin’s move to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland, disaffected republican candidates are expected to put their names forward in several constituencies.
Republican Sinn Féin, which broke away from Gerry Adams’ party 21 years ago, and independent candidates such as former IRA prisoner Gerry McGeough have already declared their intention to run.
On the unionist side, UK Unionist leader Bob McCartney has announced he may put his name forward in a number of constituencies as well as running other candidates in a bid to draw votes away from the DUP in protest at their involvement in recent efforts to revive power sharing.
Independent unionist Paul Berry will also be fighting to retain his Newry and Armagh seat for the first time outside the DUP party machine after he was forced to quit over allegations about his personal life.
Smaller parties such as the cross-community Alliance Party, the loyalist Progressive Unionists and independent Assembly member Dr Kieran Deeney will also be battling to hold onto seats.
The Green Party, the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party will also be hoping to make breakthroughs at Stormont.
Nomination papers will be handed in at centres in Belfast, Derry, Ballymena, Glengormley, Banbridge and Omagh.
After handing his nomination papers in, Gerry Adams will meet the leader of Basque political party Batasuna, Arnaldo Otegi, at Sinn Féin’s headquarters to discuss their attempts to make peace with the Spanish government.