By Rebecca Black and Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The counting of votes has begun in Northern Ireland following elections to the Stormont Assembly.
The first of the 90 MLAs are expected to be returned by Friday afternoon but the counting is set to continue into the early hours of Saturday. Some 239 candidates are running across 18 constituencies.
The election could provide an historic result, with Sinn Féin on course to become the largest party in the region for the first time according to opinion polls.
Northern Ireland's chief electoral officer Virginia McVea said there is little indication of how long the count will last.
“It depends how the spread of the vote goes. In west Belfast, the ballot paper is 17 candidates long, in east Antrim it’s 13 candidates long – the longer the ballot paper, the more spread of votes across candidates and those candidates either have to reach quota, or they have to be excluded.”
The first stage of the counts, taking place at centres in Belfast, Jordanstown and Magherafelt, will include an announcement on total votes polled and percentage turnout.
An indicative voter turnout of around 54 per cent was given by the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland at 9pm on Thursday, based on the average of returns from polling stations which remained open until 10pm.
The indicative turnout ranged from 60 per cent in West Belfast to 47 per cent in the South Antrim constituency.
The turnout at the last Assembly election in 2017 was 64.8 per cent.
The DUP and Sinn Féin are vying for top spot, which comes with the entitlement to nominate the next first minister.
A unionist party has always been the biggest in the Assembly, and previously the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921.
While the office of the first and deputy first minister is an equal one with joint power, the allocation of the titles is regarded as symbolically important.
The Northern Ireland Protocol has cast a long shadow over the election campaign following the resignation of First Minister, Paul Givan, in February in an effort to force the UK government to act over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
This action left the Executive unable to fully function.
While ministers remained in post, they were restricted in the actions they could take.
Your vote will make a difference.
If you want a First Minister for all, come out and vote Sinn Féin.
Polling stations close at 10pm, and all you need to bring is your ID.
Together, let’s seize this moment and make history! pic.twitter.com/Av8hik2Qsv
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) May 5, 2022
Unionists object to the additional checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain as a border in the Irish Sea.
Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) proportional representation electoral system.
The DUP won 28 seats at the last Assembly elections in 2017, just ahead of Sinn Féin which returned 27 MLAs.
Next was the SDLP with 12 seats, the Ulster Unionist Party with 10 seats, Alliance with eight seats, the Green Party with two seats while People Before Profit and the TUV had one MLA each.
This year, the DUP has been regarded as playing it safe, running 30 candidates, while Sinn Féin is running 34.
Meanwhile, the UUP is running 27 candidates, the Alliance Party is running 24, the SDLP is fielding 22, TUV is putting up 19 candidates, the Green Party is running 18 and People Before Profit 12, as is Aontu, while the Workers Party is running six candidates and the PUP three.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and the Socialist Party are each fielding two candidates, while the Northern Ireland Conservatives, Cross Community Labour Alliance (CCLA), Resume NI and Heritage Party are each running one candidate.
There are also 24 independent candidates.