Much at stake in North poll

Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday with the electorate faced with three ballot papers.

Not only are Assembly and council seats up for grabs but there is also a referendum on the reform of the voting system used for the Westminster election.

While many observers believe the campaign to date has been somewhat low key there is the potential that when votes care counted on Friday and Saturday the results could have far-reaching consequences.

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Not only are Sinn Féin targeting the First Minister's job by returning the most MLAs to Stormont, but in Belfast the party hopes to increase its seats and along with the SDLP see a nationalist majority of Belfast City Council for the first time in the city's history.

On the broader front Sinn Fein are hoping to put more distance between themselves and the SDLP.

"I think the message throughout the last decade has been of Sinn Féin drawing ahead and then consolidating our strength," said the party's South Antrim MLA, Mitchel McLaughlin.

"I do think the focus, for example, in the unionist community on Sinn Féin continuing to develop its electoral strength probably reflects realistically what is happening."

The party is eyeing possible gains in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Upper Bann, Mid Ulster and East Antrim.

But the SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie is confident of holding seats and even making advances.

"You just look at last year's Westminster election," she says.

"All kinds of predictions were made and the SDLP retained its three seats in Westminster.

"We retained them with increased majorities and I think we did well in that respect. And it is our intention to build on our success of that in this year's election."

On the unionist side, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott and the DUP leader Peter Robinson were involved in a very public spat during a TV debate last week when Elliott accused Robinson of praising Sinn Féin's education minister Caitriona Ruane by saying she was "great."

Robinson said at the time this was "an absolute, unmitigated lie."

Ruane has abolished the controversial Eleven Plus exam for 11-year-olds and as a result has found herself on the receiving end of criticism from all parties bar her own.

Robinson even said he could not allow Elliott's remarks to stand, and he would "leave it to the lawyers" to deal with the matter.

Elliott has also criticized the DUP's record in the Stormont Executive while describing Sinn Féin and the DUP as "the Siamese twins."