Voting 'steady' in Northern Ireland Assembly election

Polling station at Elmgrove Primary school
Polling station at Elmgrove Primary school

Voting in Northern Ireland's snap Assembly election has been described as steady, with some polling stations reporting higher early turnouts than last year's Stormont vote.

Chief electoral officer Virginia McVea said lunchtime data indicated there had been no lulls in voter flow.

Polling station at Templemore Avenue

Polling station at Templemore Avenue

"At 12pm, in terms of ballot papers, it seems to be steady," she said.

"Some places are reporting that it seems to be a bit busier than they were at the same stage last year. But that's anecdotal at this stage."

The official turnout will not be known until the counting process gets under way on Friday.

The region's political leaders cast their ballots through Thursday morning.

Irish language activist Dominic Sherry walks into a West Belfast polling station dressed in a crocodile costume to cast his vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

Irish language activist Dominic Sherry walks into a West Belfast polling station dressed in a crocodile costume to cast his vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

The electorate is returning to the polls to select a new devolved Assembly for the second time in less than a year.

The powersharing coalition executive led by the two largest parties at Stormont - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - collapsed in January.

If the former partners in government are again returned as the main players, they will have three weeks to resolve their multiple differences and form a new administration.

The re-imposition of direct rule from London is on the cards if the post-election talks fail to mend tensions.

DUP leader Arlene Foster voted at Brookeborough primary school in the heart of her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.

The former first minister chatted with local people outside and said hello to the gathered media.

She later tweeted: "This is an important election. Make your vote to build a stronger, better NI."

Forty miles away, Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill filled out her ballot paper in St Patrick's primary school in her home village of Clonoe, Co Tyrone.

She was joined by daughter Saoirse and son Ryan. He has just turned 18 and was voting for the first time.

"It's great that so many people are coming out to vote," said Mrs O'Neill.

The Ulster Unionists and nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which have presented themselves as an alternative cross-community partnership, are bidding to wrest control away from the fractious former allies.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt was accompanied by wife Lynda Bryans and son Peter as he voted at Gilnahirk primary school in east Belfast, while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood arrived at the Model Primary School in Londonderry with wife Rachael and his young daughter Rosa.

"It's a dry day so hopefully that will mean a high turnout," said Mr Nesbitt.

Mr Eastwood said: "This is a very important election. I think it's probably the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement."

Leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, Naomi Long, voted along with her husband Michael at St Colmcille's parochial house in the east Belfast constituency where she was once MP.

She smiled and shook hands with a voter as she left.

Polling stations opened at 7am and will close at 10pm.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have fallen out over the unionist party's handling of a botched green energy scheme and a host of other issues.

Former DUP first minister Peter Robinson has warned politicians to step back and avert a headlong rush towards the destruction of devolved government.

If the three-week post-election deadline passes, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is legally obliged to call yet another election.

But, in those circumstances, the Government may well move to pass emergency legislation to suspend devolution for the first time in 10 years.

While the Assembly election will not change how Theresa May's Government treats talks to leave the European Union, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a key Brexit issue.

Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in 18 constituencies, with the overall number returned falling from 108 to 90.

A total of 228 candidates are running.