Voters cast ballots in Stormont Assembly election

Voters cast ballots in Stormont Assembly election
Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire

Voters across the North have been casting their ballots in the election for the Stormont Assembly.

The region's political leaders were among the morning voters, with numbers through the polling stations expected to spike in the peak evening hours.

Democratic Unionist leader and outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster voted at a polling station near her home in Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh, while long-time Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was accompanied by party colleagues as he dispatched his ballot in his native Derry.

Earlier at the same Northland Road polling station in Derry, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood carried his daughter Rosa into the building as he voted, while Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt voted along with his wife Lynda at Gilnahirk Primary School in east Belfast.

Alliance Party leader David Ford arrived to cast his vote at the polling station in Second Donegore Presbyterian Church in rural Co Antrim just after 11am, accompanied by his wife Anne, daughter Helen and grandchildren Eli and Lilah.

Most of the region was bathed in sunshine through what was one of the warmest days of the year so far.

The poll is the first chance to vote for people born after the historic Good Friday Agreement.

Eighteen years on from the signing of the 1998 peace accord that paved the way for a devolved power-sharing government, voters are selecting the latest batch of 108 MLAs to represent them at Parliament Buildings. There are 276 candidates standing across 18 constituencies.

The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein are again likely to emerge as the two largest parties on their respective sides of the unionist/nationalist political divide after polls close at 10pm.

Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire
Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mrs Foster has placed particular onus on seeing off the challenge of Mr McGuinness in the race to see which one of them takes the First Minister's job ahead of the Deputy First Minister's job.

It would require a significant electoral turnaround for Sinn Fein to topple the DUP as the largest party and most pundits believe it highly unlikely.

Mr McGuinness has played down the importance of the job title, given both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's jobs wield the same authority.

A more significant target for Sinn Fein, which won 29 seats to the DUP's 38 in 2011, might be the 30 seats that would hand it the strength to solely veto Assembly legislation with the use of the much-maligned "petition of concern" voting mechanism.

After a relatively low-key campaign, which has seen social and economic issues feature more prominently than in previous electoral races, the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party face an uphill battle to break the DUP/Sinn Fein grip on power at Stormont.

Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire
Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire

When all the seats have been filled and talks begin in Belfast to shape the next coalition executive's programme for government, the smaller parties are set to face a choice between re-entering the administration as junior partners or taking up the newly established option of forming an official opposition.

The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), Green Party, Ukip, People Before Profit and the Progressive Unionist Party are among the smaller parties also vying for a place on the Assembly benches.

With such a muted campaign, all eyes will be on the turnout figure. The percentage of voters casting a ballot in Assembly elections has been in steady decline over the last two decades. It was 54.5% in 2011.

A total of 1,380 ballot boxes have been placed at 619 polling stations across the North.

The count for the 18 constituencies will be conducted through Friday and Saturday at eight centres across the region. The first results are expected on Friday afternoon with the final outcome not expected until 24 hours later.

Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire
Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire

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