Count process begins in Northern Ireland's snap election

Election count staff count ballot papers at the main Belfast count centre, Titanic Exhibition Centre, in Northern Ireland's Assembly election.
Election count staff count ballot papers at the main Belfast count centre, Titanic Exhibition Centre, in Northern Ireland's Assembly election.

The count process is under way in Northern Ireland's snap Assembly election.

This is the second contest in less than a year and early indications are that turnout has been higher than expected.

Count staff in eight centres began the process of verifying used ballot papers at 8am. Counting in earnest will commence after that.

The first results are due early in the afternoon, with some of the 18 constituency counts set to extend into Saturday.

A total of 228 candidates are vying for the 90 seats in Stormont's slimmed-down devolved legislature.

The Assembly poll was the second in 10 months.

The last powersharing coalition executive led by the two largest parties at Stormont - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - collapsed in January, only eight months after last May's election.

They fell out over the unionist party's handling of a botched green energy scheme and are also at odds on a host of other issues.

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 reimposition of direct rule from London is on the cards if the post-election talks fail.

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

The cross-community Alliance Party is also hopeful of a strengthened mandate.

Ahead of the election, former DUP first minister Peter Robinson warned politicians to step back and avert 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.

However, in those circumstances, the Government may pass emergency legislation to suspend devolution for the first time in 10 years ahead of more lengthy negotiations.

While the Assembly ballot 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 each constituency, with the overall number returned falling from 108 to 90 as a consequence of the implementation of previously agreed reform measures.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) proportional representation electoral system.