Northern Ireland’s political parties are gearing up for a summer election after a teatime announcement by the prime minister.

Rishi Sunak ended speculation on Wednesday, saying voters will go to the polls on 4 July.

Some Northern Ireland party leaders said they were surprised by an election in six weeks time, others said they had been waiting patiently.

Eighteen seats are up for grabs in Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Party ( DUP) is the largest Northern Ireland party in the House of Commons with eight MPs.

Former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who now faces historical sexual offence charges – which he said he will be contesting – will not be standing for re-election.

Sinn Féin is currently the largest party at Stormont and at local government level.

They will want to replicate that in the Westminster poll.

Currently, they have seven MPs, but are an abstentionist party, meaning they do not take their seats in the House of Commons.

The SDLP has two MPs and Alliance has one.

Meanwhile, the Electoral Office has said the deadline for absent vote applications is Friday 14 June.

Anyone who previously registered to vote online, will be required to supply a Digital Registration Number (DRN) in their absent vote application, via the electoral office website.

Analysis: Gareth Gordon, political correspondent

Northern Ireland’s political parties certainly didn’t expect a July election which is why so many questions need answering and soon.

Like who will the DUP run in place of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in Lagan Valley?

Will the Alliance leader Naomi Long stand in East Belfast?

And if she doesn’t, will that mean the prospects are better for Gavin Robinson just weeks into his time as the DUP’s interim leader?

On the face of it the DUP appears to be the party under most pressure.

The Donaldson factor is one thing. The vote-splitting threat from the link-up between the TUV and Reform UK is another.

All of which means Sinn Féin will fancy its chances of becoming the biggest party for the first time in a Westminster election.

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