Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 12:32 UK

By-election draws Stormont big guns

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI political correspondent

Fermanagh has become a magnet for Stormont ministers who are flocking there to campaign for the Enniskillen by-election. In fact one of them is standing for the council - just months after resigning.

Ballot box
Arlene Foster, the enterprise minister, is hoping to defend the seat left vacant by the death of veteran DUP councillor Joe Dodds.

Mrs Foster is the biggest hitter among the six candidates - and the biggest target.

The First Minister and DUP leader, Peter Robinson, was at her side as she toured the town's Cole's Hill estate, which has been making efforts to improve the area through a new garden scheme.

"Hello ladies," said the rather staid Mr Robinson.

He was in good humour as he toured the gardens and before departing one house, he declared: "You know what you have to do for Arlene."

In case there's any doubt the posters around the town declare the message: Vote Foster 1.

Misogyny and sexism have no place in this country
Arlene Foster
DUP candidate
The candidate herself has been attacked on all sides for doing a U-turn so soon after returning to the council.

Mrs Foster has been accused of having too many jobs - and one critic, Sam Foster, a former Ulster Unionist minister, suggested in a letter to the Fermanagh Herald that she risked neglecting her role as a wife and mother.

Mrs Foster was outraged. She said this was both offensive and sexist.

"I think we are really scraping the bottom of the barrel when we are going down to that sort of level," she said.

"Misogyny and sexism have no place in this country, and frankly I was very embarrassed to see that in a Fermanagh paper."

Mrs Foster insists that her main reason for quitting her own council seat was not double-jobbing - which her party is seeking to end - but the conflict of interest she faced as then environment minister.

I'm the proper unity candidate
Basil Johnston
UUP candidate
She has pledged to give up the seat in the council shake-up in 2011.

She said her reason for standing is her party's determination to prevent the seat falling into the hands of Sinn Féin.

Her party has attacked the Ulster Unionists and its councillor Bertie Kerr for forcing the by-election.

In their defence, Fermanagh Ulster Unionists claim the DUP was too presumptuous about a co-option and did not properly consult with them.

Bitterness

The bitterness however has not stopped the unionist parties from co-operating - both are calling on unionists to give their second preferences to other pro-union candidates in a bid to defeat Sinn Féin.

That's also the reason cited by the TUV for sitting this one out - which, despite DUP assertions to the contrary, must be a source of relief as the party took votes from it in the Dromore by-election.

Although Mrs Foster as a DUP candidate topped the poll in the 2005 council elections in Enniskillen, Ulster Unionist candidate Basil Johnston is insisting she is not the favourite nor does she carry the mantle for unionism.

We have got a good chance of winning this election but it is going to be tight
Debbie Coyle
Sinn Féin candidate

"I'm the proper unity candidate. Arlene has been a very divisive character. She got elected as an Ulster Unionist and then she jumped and joined the DUP in 2003.

"The DUP has done the ultimate of U-turns since 2005 so her record has been anything but consistent."

Mr Johnston also claimed voters were coming back to his party after the DUP U-turn over power-sharing with Sinn Féin.

Enmity

On the nationalist side, there is no co-operation on vital transfers, only enmity.

Transfers are likely to be critical in this very tight race.

While the DUP was slightly ahead of Sinn Féin in the 2005 race, the difference between the combined nationalist and unionist first preference votes was below 200.

So this race could come down to a handful of votes.

Like the DUP, Sinn Féin is doing its best to present this as a two-way race between its candidate Debbie Coyle and Mrs Foster.

"We have got a good chance of winning this election but it is going to be tight," said Ms Coyle.

SDLP candidate Rosemary Flanagan is sharply critical of both Sinn Féin and the DUP, saying voters were turned off by their squabbling
She added she was best placed to win, as she is on the ground and is focussed on the issues such as play parks and other facilities.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has been in the constituency along with farming minister Michelle Gildernew and the party's candidate Debbie Savage.

Taking a break in the local smoothie bar, the trio laughed heartily when Mr Adams was advised to take the "rejuvenation sensation".

A sharp critic of Sinn Féin's is perhaps hoping to have the last laugh.

Fermanagh MLA Gerry McHugh quit the party last December, complaining it was dictatorial and implementing British policy.

Youngest candidate

He is backing his daughter, independent candidate Karen McHugh, who is just 18 and is the youngest person ever to stand for election in Northern Ireland.

She is about to attend Queen's University to study psychology and is pledging to represent all shades.

SDLP candidate Rosemary Flanagan has been campaigning alongside her party's housing minister Margaret Ritchie.

She is sharply critical of both Sinn Féin and the DUP, saying voters were turned off by their squabbling.

She said Mrs Foster has enough to do as a minister and is also part of the failure of the Executive to meet at Stormont.

"Her inaction as a minister must play a part in this (election)," she said.

Alliance candidate Dr Kumar Kamble is also appealing to all sides. The local doctor said he is focused on the issues that matter, such as traffic congestion.

All sides agree turnout on Wednesday will be crucial. The result is expected by noon on Thursday.

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BBC Northern Ireland's political correspondent Martina Purdy reports on the Enniskillen by-election




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