By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
For an election with so much at stake, the Northern Ireland Assembly campaign trail over recent weeks has been curiously lacklustre.
Northern Ireland currently has no functioning Executive, the population is gripped by a cost-of-living crisis and disagreements persist over the post-Brexit protocol.
Yet, despite the region facing into an uncertain political future, the Stormont election battle never really seemed to spark into life.
There was nothing to rival Arlene Foster’s infamous “crocodiles” comment in 2017 when speaking about Sinn Féin’s desire for an Irish language Act.
Indeed, the closest thing to controversy on the campaign trail was probably the ongoing complaints from parties about the destruction of their election posters.
Perhaps this is partly because Sinn Féin has adopted a safety first approach.
Aware that a number of opinion polls have given the republican party a healthy lead over its unionist DUP rivals, the party has chosen to portray vice-president Michelle O’Neill as the potential “first minister for all”, unwilling to risk the historic possibility of a nationalist party emerging with the most seats at Stormont for the first time.
Ms O’Neill has mostly sidestepped questions about Irish unity, preferring instead to focus on the cost-of-living crisis and Northern Ireland’s ailing health service.
The DUP has fought a more aggressive campaign.
It has channelled its energy into two issues – the Northern Ireland Protocol and a border poll.
The party collapsed Northern Ireland’s powersharing Executive earlier this year in protest at the protocol, and has vowed not to re-enter government until Westminster restores Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.
Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has taken his anti-protocol campaign around Northern Ireland, joining with TUV leader Jim Allister on the platform at a number of rallies calling for the post-Brexit trading arrangements, and the resulting economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK, to be scrapped.
He has also consistently said that any Sinn Féin victory in the election would embolden republicans to seek a date for a referendum on Irish unity.
On this issue though, he has found a foe in Sinn Féin which has been unwilling to engage.
Instead, the DUP has found itself under attack from other parties because of its decision to collapse the Executive.
The Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has said the election is not just about who governs Northern Ireland and how, but whether Northern Ireland is governed at all.
Her cross-community party has also called for a major reform of Stormont rules dating back to the Good Friday Agreement which mean that all MLAs at Stormont must designate as either unionist, nationalist or other.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has tried consistently to steer the electorate’s focus on to bread-and-butter issues such as soaring living costs and spiralling health service waiting lists.
The Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, who has absented himself from the anti-protocol rallies, has taken a different path than his unionist rivals in the DUP.
He publicly stated that there would not be a united Ireland in his lifetime or the lifetime of his children and has instead insisted that government should work to resolve the daily issues facing families in Northern Ireland.
At the end of the long and gruelling campaign, the public should know late on Friday, or early on Saturday, which 90 MLAs have been elected to Stormont.
While the election has failed to catch fire so far, that could all be about to change.