Northern Ireland’s political leaders cast their ballots in the Assembly elections.
The process is taking place amid speculation over a potentially seismic outcome, with Sinn Fein hoping to become the biggest party for the first time.
Party vice-chairman Michelle O’Neill filled in her ballot at St Patrick’s Primary School in her home village of Clonoe, County Tyrone, accompanied by party colleague Linda Dillon. She posed for photos with voters before leaving.
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Thirty miles away, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson cast his ballot at Dromore Central Primary School in Co Down.
He hopes his Unionist party will retain its position as the biggest in Stormont. He repeated his message that the UK government must act on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He said: “I think people are determined to see trade unionism win in this election.
Unionist rival Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, cast his vote at Seagoe Primary School in Portadown, Co Armagh.
He said: ‘It’s election day, I don’t think anyone really knows the outcome of this. Things change throughout the day. We continue to explore. »
Naomi Long, leader of the Cross-Community Alliance Party, cast her vote accompanied by her husband Michael at St Colmcille Parish House in the East Belfast constituency where she was once an MP.
Nationalist SDLP leader Colum Eastwood voted at Model Primary School in his home town of Londonderry accompanied by his wife Rachael and children.
He said, “The people are all powerful today and the people will vote. We are very confident that we will do well.
TUV leader Jim Allister casts an early morning vote at Kells and Connor Primary School in County Antrim.
The DUP and Sinn Fein are vying for the top spot in the election, which comes with the right to appoint the next prime minister.
A unionist party has always been the largest in the Assembly, and previously in the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921.
This year a number of opinion polls have suggested that Sinn Fein will finish ahead of the DUP to become the first Nationalist or Republican party to come out on top.
While the office of Prime and Deputy Prime Minister is an equal post with joint power, the conferment of titles is considered symbolically important.
A push by the Central Alliance party was also suggested in pre-election polls.
The Northern Ireland Protocol cast a shadow over the election campaign after Prime Minister Paul Givan resigned in February in a bid to force the UK government to act on post-Brexit trade deals.
This action left the executive unable to fully function. As long as ministers remained in office, they were limited in the actions they could take. Unionists oppose additional checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain as the Irish Sea border.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis urged the public to vote.
He also revealed that he briefed the parties on the need for them to work together to restore a fully functioning decentralized government after the elections.
“The people of Northern Ireland go to the polls today. I encourage everyone to get out and vote.
“It is vital that we give people the space to vote in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect,” he said.
“I have communicated to the parties the need for them to work together to restore the decentralized institutions to full operation as soon as they can, once the count is over.”
Five seats in the Assembly are to be filled in 18 constituencies, the total number of deputies elected being 90. A total of 239 candidates are in the running.
Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional representation electoral system.
Counting will begin at three centers in Belfast, Jordanstown and Magherafelt on Friday morning with the first results expected later today.
The DUP won 28 seats in the last Assembly elections in 2017, just ahead of Sinn Fein which elected 27 MPs.
Next come the SDLP with 12 seats, the Ulster Unionist Party with 10 seats, the Alliance with eight seats, the Green Party with two seats while People Before Profit and the TUV each had one MP.
This year the DUP has been seen as playing it safe, fielding 30 candidates, while Sinn Fein field 34.
Meanwhile, the UUP fielded 27 candidates, the Alliance Party fielded 24, the SDLP fielded 22, the TUV fielded 19 candidates, the Green Party fielded 18 and People Before Profit 12, as did Aontu, while that the Workers’ Party is fielding six candidates and the PUP three.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and the Socialist Party each field two candidates, while the Northern Ireland Conservatives, Cross Community Labor Alliance (CCLA), Resume NI and Heritage Party each field one candidate.
There are 24 independent candidates. Polling stations close at 10 p.m.
Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea has advised voters to wear masks to prevent the potential spread of Covid-19.
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