Northern Ireland

Counting of votes for NI assembly elections under way

Counting is underway in the Northern Ireland assembly elections.

There is still no official turnout figure, but the percentage is predicted to be in the low to mid 50s.

This will be well down on both last year's Westminster election and the last assembly election four years ago.

Verification of votes is continuing at some of the eight centres across NI. The first results are expected early on Friday evening.

The final make-up of the new assembly should be known by Saturday.

As the election workers check whether they have the right number of votes, agents for the political parties are looking over their shoulders trying to spot how many first preferences their candidates are getting and how many are going to their rivals.

This tallying process provides the first inklings in what will be a lengthy counting process.

BBC NI's Political Editor Mark Devenport said: "So far the signs are not great for the Ulster Unionists, with the DUP confident they will gain a seat in North Down and the Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister acknowledging he faces a tight fight for survival in South Down.

"There are also reports of a possible Ulster Unionist loss in east Antrim, whilst in Strangford the former TV presenter Mike Nesbitt appears to be out polling his UUP running mate David McNarry.

"Both nationalist parties appear confident they have got their vote out.

"In South Belfast the Alliance's Anna Lo has been performing strongly."

Mr Devenport said although counting has only been ongoing for a short time, the focus is likely to be on the pecking order of the smaller parties in the Stormont coalition.

"If the UUP's fortunes do not improve it could slip from 3rd to 4th place, which might mean the loss of its second executive department," he added.

About 1,200 election workers will be counting votes over the next few days.

They have to open more than 4,000 ballot boxes to check they contain the same number of ballot papers as were handed out by staff at the polling stations.

Once staff have finished their checks, they will start counting the white assembly papers.

The brown council papers will not be counted until Monday and Tuesday of next week.

Ballots cast in the Alternative Vote Referendum will be counted at 1600 BST.

However the overall result of the UK-wide referendum is not expected until Friday evening.

Special Assembly election programmes will begin on radio and television at 1500 BST.

Radio Ulster news will keep you updated throughout the day -- and News Online will have the results as they happen.

Politicians and pundits will also be giving their reaction on news online, radio and television.

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