Voting in the North described as 'steady'

Michelle O'Neil of Sinn Féin launches the party manifesto.     PA  Deborah McAleese

The executive, led by the two largest parties at Stormont - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - was dissolved after the republicans were unhappy with the unionist party's handling of a botched green energy scheme and a host of other issues.

If the DUP and Sinn Fein end up as the two biggest parties - as polls predict - and can not agree to form a power-sharing executive within three weeks, the governance of Northern Ireland will probably revert from Belfast to London for the foreseeable future.

Observers predict a similar outcome to the May 2016 assembly elections, in which the Protestant and conservative DUP won slightly more seats than the Catholic and socialist Sinn Fein.

The election was called after the resignation of Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in opposition to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, and a breakdown in relations with DUP executive partners.

In the June referendum Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union but the result in Britain as a whole was for Brexit.

Mr Farry claimed the electorate has realised that a DUP and Sinn Fein government doesn't work and said: "Alliance represents that third option and the centre-ground is asserting itself".

It had been instigated by First Minister Arlene Foster, head of the DUP, when she was economy minister. Failure to do so could see the return of "direct rule" over the province by the British government at Westminster. "I'm just fed up with all the corruption and all the scandals to do with the heating and all the rest of it", civil servant Catherine Aouad said.

Mr Easton added nearly 2,000 extra first preference votes to last year's total of more than 6,000, with his party colleague Gordon Dunne also polling strongly. Irish nationalists support a united Ireland, and want a "border poll" on unification.

The Irish Republic's Prime Minister Enda Kenny was in Brussels on Thursday for talks which included the impact of Brexit on the Northern Irish peace process.

The open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which will remain an European Union member state, is "potentially the most serious and under-reported aspect of the whole Brexit process", Feargal Cochrane, a political analyst at the University of Kent, told reporters ahead of the election.

Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in each constituency, with the overall number returned falling from 108 to 90 as a effect of the implementation of previously agreed reform measures.

Britain's Northern Ireland minister James Brokenshire emphasised the importance of a "frictionless" border during talks in Brussels this week, and promised to "take no risks" with political stability in the province.

The BBC News NI website will carry the latest election results and analysis on Friday and throughout the weekend.

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