Counting to begin in Northern Ireland following snap election
COUNTING begins today after a snap election for Northern Ireland's devolved institutions.
This is the second contest in less than a year and early indications are that turnout has been higher than expected.
The powersharing coalition of ministers led by the two largest parties at Stormont - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - collapsed in acrimony in January.
They fell out over the unionist party's handling of a botched green energy scheme and a host of other issues.
If the former partners in government are again returned as the main players they will have three weeks to resolve multiple differences and form a new administration.
Re-imposition of direct rule from London is on the cards if post-election talks fail to mend tensions.
The Ulster Unionists and nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which have presented themselves as an alternative cross-community partnership, are bidding to wrest control away from the fractious former allies.
Former DUP first minister Peter Robinson has warned politicians to step back and avert the destruction of devolved government.
If the three-week post-election deadline passes, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is legally obliged to call yet another election.
However, the Government may pass emergency legislation to suspend devolution for the first time in 10 years ahead of more lengthy negotiations.
While the Assembly ballot will not change how Theresa May's Government treats talks to leave the European Union, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a key Brexit issue.
Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in each of the 18 constituencies, with the overall number returned falling from 108 to 90.
A total of 228 candidates are running.
Former Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in January in protest over the DUP's handling of the massively overspent Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which is paying grants to businesses worth more than the cost of running wood biomass boilers.
That forced the dissolution of the institutions, which need nationalists and unionists in government to operate, and Mr Brokenshire called an election.
The next ballot had been due to take place in May 2021 after a poll last May.
Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) proportional representation electoral system.
Counting will start during daytime on Friday with the last results not expected until later on Saturday.
All the main Stormont parties reduced the number of candidates fielded, in line with the downsized Assembly.
The largest party, the DUP, is running 38 - six fewer than last year.
Sinn Fein dropped five, from 39 to 34.
The UUP has 24 candidates - two fewer than in 2016 - while the SDLP is down three on 21.
The Alliance Party nominated 21 Assembly hopefuls, down two.