Polling stations close across Northern Ireland in Stormont election
Polling stations have closed following fresh elections to the Stormont Assembly.
The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland gave indicative turnout figures per constituency at 9pm on Thursday which averaged at around 54%, an hour before polling stations closed at 10pm.
They said the figure was based on the average of returns from polling stations.
The indicative turnout ranged from 60% in West Belfast to 47% in the South Antrim constituency.
The official final turnout figure will not be known until Friday morning. The turnout at the last Assembly election in 2017 was 64%.
The counting process will start at 8am on Friday to elect 90 MLAs to the devolved Assembly, with 239 candidates running.
Earlier, chief electoral officer Virginia McVey said: “We have a new system in place, so we are able to digitally monitor turnout.
Northern Ireland’s political leaders cast their ballots earlier on Thursday.
Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill filled out her ballot paper in St Patrick’s primary school in her home village of Clonoe, Co Tyrone, accompanied by party colleague Linda Dillon.
She posed for photographs with some voters before leaving.
Thirty miles away, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson cast his vote at Dromore Central primary school in Co Down.
Unionist rival Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, voted at Seagoe primary school in Portadown, Co Armagh.
He said: “It’s polling day, I don’t think anybody really knows the outcome of this. Things change throughout the day.”
Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, cast her ballot accompanied by husband Michael at St Colmcille’s parochial house in the east Belfast constituency where she was once the MP.
Colum Eastwood, leader of the nationalist SDLP, voted at the Model primary school in his home city of Londonderry accompanied by his wife, Rachael, and his children.
He said: “The people are all powerful today and the people will cast their vote.”
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, voted early in the morning at Kells and Connor primary school in Co Antrim.
The DUP and Sinn Fein are vying for the top spot in the election, which comes with the entitlement to nominate the next first minister.
A unionist party has always been the biggest in the Assembly, and previously the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921.
While the office of the first and deputy first minister is an equal one with joint power, the allocation of the titles is regarded as symbolically important.
The Northern Ireland Protocol has cast a long shadow over the election campaign following the resignation of first minister Paul Givan in February in an effort to force the UK Government to act over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
This action left the Executive unable to fully function.
While ministers remained in post, they were restricted in the actions they could take.
Unionists object to the additional checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain as a border in the Irish Sea.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said he has told the parties of the need for them to work together to restore a fully-functioning devolved government after the election.
“I have conveyed to the parties the need for them to work together to restore fully functioning devolved institutions as soon as they can, when the count is complete,” he said.
Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in 18 constituencies, with the overall number of MLAs returned 90.
A total of 239 candidates are running.
Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) proportional representation electoral system.
Counting will start at three centres in Belfast, Jordanstown and Magherafelt on Friday morning, with the first results expected the same day.
The DUP won 28 seats at the last Assembly elections in 2017, just ahead of Sinn Fein, which returned 27 MLAs.
Next was the SDLP with 12 seats, the Ulster Unionist Party with 10 seats, Alliance with eight seats, the Green Party with two seats while People Before Profit and the TUV had one MLA each.
This year, the DUP has been regarded as playing it safe, running 30 candidates, while Sinn Fein is running 34.
Meanwhile, the UUP is running 27 candidates, the Alliance Party is running 24, the SDLP is fielding 22, TUV is putting up 19 candidates, the Green Party is running 18 and People Before Profit 12, as is Aontu, while the Workers Party is running six candidates and the PUP three.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and the Socialist Party are each fielding two candidates while the Northern Ireland Conservatives, Cross Community Labour Alliance (CCLA), Resume NI and Heritage Party are each running one candidate.
There are 24 independent candidates.