BBC NEWS | Northern Ireland | Election counting begins

Election counting begins

The final result is expected on Friday evening

Counting of votes to elect candidates for the Northern Ireland Assembly is under way. However, early indications have suggested that the turnout for Wednesday's election was lower than usual.

Votes are being verified and counted on Thursday, with a final result expected to emerge early on Friday evening, barring recounts.

There are 1,097,526 eligible voters in Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies, while about 20 different parties and groupings contested the election.

In all, 256 candidates were nominated for the poll to elect 108 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly).

Northern Ireland Chief Electoral Officer Denis Stanley said: "Turnout seems to be somewhere between 50 to 60%, some of the polling stations a little higher than others".

BBC Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport said turnout seemed to be down in the east of the province, with traditionally higher figures in the west.

"Given that the turnout in the 1998 assembly election was over 69%, an educated guess would be a turnout in the higher 50s," he said.

"Apart from the immediate impact of the cold, the wet and the dark and football on the television, there is the whole business of holding an election to a body which remains suspended.

"That's obviously going to confuse people."

Exit poll

The assembly was suspended more than a year ago and the parties went into the election against the background of a deadlocked political process.

A power-sharing executive will not be re-established at Stormont immediately after the election.

Instead, a review of the workings of the Good Friday Agreement and a further round of negotiations is expected to begin.

Meanwhile, an exit poll of 1,500 people has claimed that the Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists are neck-and-neck with 25% of people saying they had given their first preference votes to either party.

The survey, carried out for the Republic of Ireland's broadcasting station, RTE, suggested that Sinn Fein had secured 20% support with the SDLP getting 16% of first preferences.

Wednesday's poll was the first election in Northern Ireland to be held in November since 1965.

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