The Democratic Unionists are set to play a crucial role in the next parliament, the party’s deputy leader has said.
Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader in Westminster in the last term, described an exit poll that put the Conservatives on 316 seats – 10 short of an absolute majority – as “very interesting”.
The DUP won eight of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in 2010 and are hoping to build on that.
Mr Dodds, who is defending his seat in North Belfast, was asked about the potential of a post-election deal with the Tories as he attended the Belfast count centre.
“We have always said throughout the campaign that the DUP could play a pivotal role in the next parliament of the United Kingdom,” he said.
“Obviously we have seen the exit poll, it’s a very interesting poll. There are other polls that show a slightly different picture and it’s very, very early in the evening.
“I’m not going to speculate too much on the basis of the exit poll. We have to see the results and how accurate they are, but clearly whatever the outcome of the election, the DUP is going to be crucial. And not just perhaps in terms of the formation of the government but in terms of the full five years of the parliament, where votes could be extremely tight indeed.”
Mr Dodds reiterated his party’s position that it was not seeking any formal coalition with ministerial posts.
“What we have been saying is we will always act in the best interest of Northern Ireland and, of course, the United Kingdom as a whole. We want to see stable government for the United Kingdom,” he added.
In 2010 Sinn Fein won five seats, the SDLP three, and the Alliance Party and independent Sylvia Hermon had one each.
With Sinn Fein insisting its century-old Westminster abstentionist policy will remain, the DUP claims it is best placed to exert influence in any hung parliament.
It has stated a willingness to back either Ed Miliband or David Cameron depending on what they offer Northern Ireland.
The SDLP is traditionally aligned with Labour, so would be expected to support Mr Miliband if requested.
While the Alliance Party has links with the Liberal Democrats, its sole MP Naomi Long sat on the opposition benches in the last parliament.